May 1, 2016

My Sobriety Thing

Spring in Chicago on the 606
A friend recently asked, “Do you do anything to transition from work to relaxation without alcohol? If you feel comfortable sharing it in writing, that is. What you have pointed out in the past is very true for me. Daily life is hard and I need something to look forward to at the end of the day. Alcohol becomes the habitual something.”

My answer: Sort of. The area of habit and behavior regulation is well-trod and people are vocal in their support of, or opposition to, various methods. This post isn’t an exhaustive essay or instruction manual. I'm speaking for myself only; answering a question posed by a friend.

My Sobriety Thing

It is 10 months for me. I've figured out how to make the transition from work-work-work to relax/take the edge off at 6 pm-ish. Mentally, this ability is essential so I can sleep and wake up and do it all over again. Otherwise, I'd drive until I ran out of gasoline somewhere in Iowa.

In no particular order:

1. Everyone uses something for coping: gambling, porn, weed, cigarettes, booze, exercise, shopping, food, prescription drugs, cutting, gardening, social media. You name it. Everyone.

2. The mind wants and needs a trigger to signal the end of one activity (job, life responsibilities) and the beginning of another (relaxation, escape). I need a way to handle stress and blow off steam and vent. I need a way for my brain to stop running-running-running and relax so that I can get up and do it again.

a. Some coping mechanisms are more culturally and socially supported than others: exercise, shopping, gardening. As such, these also may imply a moral fortitude, which further masks the self-medication.

b. Some coping mechanisms show up on people's physical beings. Because the effects of use are apparent, they can draw finger pointing and shame: cigarette smoking, booze in excess, morbid obesity, extreme thinness.

c. Some coping mechanisms don't readily appear, giving the illusion that a person is stable or, even, more moral: gambling, online porn, prescription drugs, cutting.

3. I came to a point last summer where I wanted to remove alcohol as my coping mechanism. 

Why? For several reasons that make sense to ME. Reasons that have meaning and make my decisions around alcohol clear:

a. My dad’s health was failing markedly. My parents lived 80 miles away. One Saturday night after a fall and ambulance ride to the ER, my mother phoned a sibling for back-up. They couldn't go because they had had some drinks at dinner. Not too many, but enough to make the drive unwise. Good judgement. While I totally get it (I, myself, was into a glass of wine when she called my house next), I had an epiphany.

I can't be sharp and clear-headed 24/7 and still drink. It's not so much the driving (although being stone-cold sober as a driver is important), it's about having the stamina to handle things coming fast and furious at 2 a.m. in the ER, or hospital room, or living room. And staying sharp and kind and humorous for hours without break. Over the last 16 months, I made more than 75 round trip visits to advocate and give care.

b. I was working odd hours and ended up getting promoted (Yay! and Wait, whaaa?), and my volunteering blossomed. I began work on a new non-profit regarding transportation options for seniors without access to a car. I couldn’t afford to, nor did I want to, screw any of this up. I had to prioritize.

c. There is a history of alcoholism in my family. Alcohol consumption means something to me that it may not mean to you. It is a double-edged sword. It can and does kill. It is like a syrupy sweet poison that people who know what it can be still go ahead and drink.

d. I very much wanted to establish sobriety before my dad died. I had a fear that I would drink even more at the funeral luncheon, dinners, brunches, or just from seeing people because one drinks at these things. Drinkers take cover in such environments because they provide the perfect mask for something I wanted to do anyway.

e. My mother needs me and I want to be there for her. I continue to travel and give support. But, the support goes both ways! I value her friendship.

f. My MIL is entering palliative care. I want to be sharp and clear-headed for this and for whatever else waits around the corner.

4. I came to realize that, while there is a physical component to alcohol dependence, I was drinking out of habit.

a. It is easy and fairly inexpensive. A mouthful of wine or beer and, Bingo!, I'm relaxed. The edge has come off and I'm in a new groove for a few hours.

b. The habit came with big negatives. I was not a bottle-a-day drinker and always had a low tolerance. A lousy drinker, actually. Two glasses hit me hard. Nonetheless and importantly, the bad feelings, guilt, sh*tty next mornings, and endless inner monologues about "will I or won't I drink today" continued unabated. The mental effort to maintain and protect my drinking was huge. To what end?
From Mary Karr's interview with Nina Puro, Mary Karr Names Names, via the The Fix:
“Nobody really talks about what happens to you and your level of self-confidence when you tell yourself every fucking day you’re going to drink X, and then you drink 10 times that—or you’re not going to drink at all and you drink anyway. You become very split off against yourself. So there was a part of me that would yell and scream and say, “You stupid bitch, goddamnit, you said you weren’t gonna drink and you drank anyway.” And there was this other part that was like “Fuck those people! Fuck the rules!” you know, blah blah blah… You assume that when you quit drinking, you’re surrendering to that kind of nasty schoolmarm rule-maker. But for me getting sober has been freedom—freedom from anxiety and freedom from…my head. What has kept me sober is not that strict rule-following schoolmarm. There’s more of a loving presence that you become aware of that is I think everyone’s real, actual self—who we really are.”
Source: (used with permission)
5. I began to better understand my own trigger and habit. I never in a minute thought I'd stop drinking without replacing it with something else. Now...what to do?

a. Most immediately, I went to the store and bought the best N/A beer I could find. I happen to really like beer, so this has been fine. Most days I’m a one-and-done with it before moving to hot water (too lazy to put in a tea bag) and I LOVE tonic water. It has this bite to it that sends a transitional signal to my brain. And, any decent bar or restaurant can mix up a tonic with celery salt, a seltzer with cranberry juice, or anything you ask them to do. You know all those artisanal bartenders? Let them at it, baby. They know their stuff.

b. Second, I wrote up a list with all the names of everyone I knew for whom alcohol is a problem. I wrote down the names of people I knew in recovery. And, I wrote out the names of everyone I knew who died from an overdose, alcoholism, and an alcohol-related accident or illness. I wrote down what a hangover feels like and I how much water I was drinking to compensate for fluid loss. How my skin looked. How much Advil I was eating. About what time I started to feel human the next day (9 a.m.? 11 a.m.? 1 p.m.?). I wrote this stuff down for reference. Turns out I don't refer to it much. It's still on my desk, though, to remind me what days were really like before I quit.

c. I emailed a friend in recovery and asked her questions about sleep restoration and headaches and anything I felt like because we were sort of secret sisters. Get a secret sister.

6. New habits

a. I use exercise to blow off stress. Not in the evening, but usually in the morning. I've found that doing it is more important than at what time it is done. My brain knows.

b. I lost the weird, puffy pillows under my eyes, for the most part. I stopped waking up with flushed cheeks or with small broken blood vessels in the whites of my eyes. I still have dark circles, but that may be dietary. I could drop dead or stroke this afternoon, but I'm living with only ONE question each day: Will I drink? Yes or No. Up to now, I answer NO and, like magic, all the interior noise and guilt and nagging disappears because it's over. No follow-up questions. Nothing. Just me doing other things.

c. Writing is a must for me. If I don't write, steam builds up in my head and I literally get uncomfortable. I say to you: write or walk or volunteer or cook or scream in a primal fashion.

d. X marks the spot. Cross off each day on a calendar. I found it reassuring in the beginning. Calendars and journaling can be a comfort.

e. Remember WHY you are changing your habits. Oftentimes, this brings me back to reality. It’s gotten easier since my new habits are becoming ingrained.

f. Be ready for bad days. I can’t count how often I picture Lloyd Bridges, from the movie Airplane!, saying “Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.” Laughter helps.

g. Of course, if there's a physical dependence component, pick up the phone and call your doctor. Call a professional. They do this for a living (!) and want to help. They won’t make you feel worse than you already do.

7. One last thing: It's not your imagination. Society won't like you.

Understand that your non-drinking flies in the face of every television/social media advertisement out there. You're not spending money on things that make the economy go 'round. Want to see the lights dim in the eyes of a server or bartender? Don't buy alcohol. You will be considered a party pooper.

Important: Many people will take your behavior as a direct indictment of theirs. You know darn well this is not why you quit, but there's no explaining it. So don't feel the obligation to try.

January 27, 2016

Pom Poms

We huddled on the floor in her room as Beth whispered, words tumbling out. Her eyes locked on mine, she tried all at once to impress and ask for approval. I knew little about the subject, it could have been car brakes instead of arousal and sex. At 13, I was still a runt, still wore an undershirt.

She told me how Adam, one of the most popular boys in our class, led her downstairs to his bedroom. After making out for a long time, he began trying to open her bra. Finally unhooking the back strap, he slid his hand around, cupping it on her breast. With his other hand, he pulled at her jeans. It was awkward. She didn’t want to seem easy by helping. Finally, he pushed his hand inside her underwear and fingered her. Paralyzed hearing such talk, I wanted to look away but couldn’t. He started asking if she wanted to do it. “DO it.”

Head bowed, Beth was practically looking at me through her eyebrows. “And he’s feeling me up, you know? And we’re, like, doing it, and I’m like...but it’s good, you know?” We both assumed she lost her virginity, even though I wasn’t exactly sure what happened. “What do you think?” she asked.

January 19, 2016

The Vow of Endurance

(Names have been changed. Rest in peace, sisters.)
I’ve always been impressed with people who can name their grade school teachers. I can’t. My father can name teachers he had 80 years ago. He sees them in his mind’s eye and recounts when they hollered and smacked kids. And when they gently buttoned little coats or taught history and ignited his imagination.

I do remember names of teachers I didn’t get. Sister Mary Katherine, an Irish, spinstery nun that kids feared. Sister Mary Ellen, a tomboy-plus-spitfire nun. For the life of me, I cannot remember the names of my Kindergarten, 1st, 2nd, or 3rd grade teachers. And I really liked Kindergarten! I know that my 1st grade teacher, a new and young nun, left our school and the Dominican order when that year ended. My 4th and 5th grade lay teachers moved out of state and onto other vocations. My 6th grade teacher, a very popular nun, left the order when I was in high school. Huh.

Mostly, school was a series of autumn-winter-springs, in plaid uniforms with neat desks that went from “I’m going to be a model student,” to so messy I couldn’t close the lid all the way.

A few teacher memories remain tattooed inside my head. Permanent marks on a kid who didn’t understand what she was seeing. They stay intact because something happened.

For many years, I wondered, “Why were they allowed to teach children?”

December 21, 2015

O Christmas Tree!

(Throwback Version)

Connie needed money after the divorce. Still in her 30s, she figured selling wallets at the mall was a good start. To nudge sales, she wore clingy wrap dresses, platform sandals, and a thin gold chain around one ankle. On slow afternoons, Mike, the young guy in appliances chatted her up. Dressed in the latest polyester suits and stacked heels from men’s apparel (20% employee discount), he’d also smoke weed to withstand eight hour shifts demonstrating vacuum cleaners.

Late one December night, they both ended up at his apartment door after a hard charging company Christmas party. Connie leaned on the wall while he fumbled keys. Blinking to reset her vision each time she started seeing double, she finally asked, “Hey, you got it?” After all, Mike just drove her clear across town from the banquet hall. Using both hands to aim each key toward the lock, he reassured, “Hold on juu-Uussss a sec.”

November 1, 2015

Farley on Halloween

Used to be, Farley would run full speed every time the doorbell rang. It'd take every ounce of training strength she had to “Sit” and “Stay” while we opened the door for guests, sales people, or trick or treaters.

Being a herder, she could easily work several children at once, keeping everyone grouped. God forbid one of our kids' playmates broke into a run during a ball game (invariably, she’d be sent inside to observe from a window).

I once watched her block a much longer-legged, 120 pound Weimaraner from entering our yard. He finally gave up and sat down on the sidewalk until she said OK. (He used to sneak out of his yard and bark at our front door for her to come outside. They loved each other.)

September 5, 2015


A dapper, 95 year-old man in the independent living complex, William always greeted me warmly. After his wife died some years ago, he started taking care of another woman, a widow. They were good friends and he became protective of her. Then she passed away, too.

Well-turned-out before leaving the apartment, he was always pressed and stylish, delivering a charming, "Hello!" to all encountered.

Recently, though, he began slipping away to inside his own head, as people do. Someone must have alerted family that he wasn’t independent any more. My mom noting, “William is so lost now.”

August 24, 2015

Being Mortal: Review and Thoughts

For years, I've read and admired Atul Gawande, an accomplished surgeon-plus-staff writer at The New Yorker magazine. This morning, I finished reading his most recent book: Being Mortal, Medicine and What Matters in the End (2014, Metropolitan Books).

Being Mortal should be required reading. Yes, the title sounds like a downer and, yes, it doesn't have that sexy summer reading ring to it. Please know, however, that Gawande is a terrific story teller and weaves medical conditions and research findings into absorbing and deceptively entertaining chapters.

Gawande isn't telling us anything we don't already (intellectually) know about our mortality rate. It's 100%. He excels, however, by briskly and expertly guiding readers through the historical trends and philosophical perspectives, as well as the medical advancements and societal responses, that undermine how we really want to live and die.

For long-time readers of  his New Yorker articles, some of the case studies will be familiar. Now, helpfully, they are part of a larger narrative regarding family dynamics and medical professionals who, while well-trained to treat, do not know when to stop and many times equate death with failure, rather than an inevitable outcome.

What do I bring to the table as a reviewer and one who recommends this book? In no particular order, first-hand experience with:

August 16, 2015

Shot by police, reflections 40 years on.

In light of recent media coverage regarding police shootings, I found myself thinking about a long-ago tragedy, from the perspective of middle-age.
- - - - - - - -

I've written dozens of stories and essays. Most sit in a file cabinet. While this young man and his family were a big part of my grade school years and exist on paper in the cabinet, I never wrote about his death. Today, I’m older than his parents were at the time and my children are older than he was when he died.

Patrick Fitzgerald had a younger brother and two younger sisters. One sister was my age and we played often at each other's homes. One summer in particular, we wrote snail mail letters back and forth, drawing flowers and stars on the envelopes. Each time I dropped a letter in the mailbox, I’d phone her on the rotary and we’d giggle excitedly about our ‘secret’ messages that took at least two days to arrive. I’d forgotten how we had to have patience.

When junior high arrived, our letters fell off and we hung out like teenagers do. Parents faded into the background and our new world orbited around boy-drama, make-up application, sneaking cigarettes, and much more. We felt a false safety in numbers and in our town.

For me, finding this article after 40 years was a bit of a shock. So matter-of-fact, so final, and so one-sided. It is at once timeless and heartbreaking:

August 15, 2015

Zen and the Art of Dying Well

As someone involved in these areas, both personally as well as serving on a municipal task force regarding seniors, I strongly recommend this thoughtful article from August 14th's New York Times:

Zen and the Art of Dying Well
credit: Wendy MacNaughton

"That’s why the project’s goal is not to increase the number of beds at the Guest House or to buy more houses, but to spread the idea of dying in this way."

June 20, 2015

Chicago Cartoons

The bullet tore into his neck and knocked him backwards. On a landing between floors, he gripped the wound and staggered down the stairs, trying to outrun what just happened. His race ended on the linoleum outside Geneva’s door.

Renting an apartment near the building’s entrance was good when carrying groceries or kids, but bad when people partied late on the stoop. She’d spent years inside providing child care. Mothers working the night shift, her bread and butter, had to put their babies someplace safe while they cleaned offices and filled catalog orders. The bedroom held three small cots for little sleepers. Geneva was known for allowing sniffles, low fevers, and an occasional extra baby, in a pinch.

Used to neighborhood gunfire after dark, tonight’s commotion sounded different.