The urgent thing was my life was actually falling apart in real, tangible and dangerous ways. But the more convincing thing was my heart’s withering cry; a knowing that it would actually be more painful to live and not wake up.
Today marks the first day of my New Life. The one where I don’t take the train to and from a job with a title and a paycheck and instead do the things that have been happening on the edges and stolen moments of my life for the past two years--writing here, writing my book, teaching yoga, and whatever else is coming that I don’t know about yet.
I’d hear the words tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth like a drumbeat in my heart—a prayer, an encouragement, a promise—that if I could find a way to do it, I would be forgiven and free. But I couldn’t find any version of the truth that didn’t make me a monster. I searched, even prayed for “good enough” reasons to leave: lies, a big betrayal, hidden addictions, a mortal flaw in him or our relationship, but never found anything but my solid, kind, just-as-promised man.
I struggle with other "non-substance" addictions. I'm constantly worrying about who likes or doesn't like me, if I am attractive or thin enough, if I am a good mom, wife, daughter, sister, friend. It's consuming and I liken it very much to an addiction to alcohol, pills whatever. You're blogs have made me cry because they resonate. I'm trying to realize it's "ok" to fail or be imperfect, but it's been almost 37 years of thinking it's not ok to be these things.
How has your running helped you in your sobriety and just generally in your life? I’ve been running since I was 14 years old. I could probably write a book on how much running has given me. These are a few things: positive body image, friends, a tribe, endorphins, competition, knowing I can push myself to the outer limits and make it, redemption and joy. How about you?
God speaks to each of us as he makes us, then walks with us silently out of the night. - Rainer Maria Rilke
Sometimes we have a big truth sitting inside us. A knowing. Maybe that our job is wrong, our relationship is dead, our child is suffering, our health is in danger – but we don’t know how to live into it, to navigate through. Clues will get us there.
And sometimes, it’s the clues that lead us to the truth. They can point us to our treasure, when all we have to guide us a vague feeling of discontent or misalignment. A general sense that we’re off course.
Clues are a breadcrumb trail fed by our curiosities and appetites, curated through the people and events that show up in our lives, and they are available to us always.
When I wrote the the hypothetical story about my friend’s elephant tattoo and how it might lead her through a winding but definite path to explore her heart, if she kept open and kept following the clues, I was brought back to my own path – the interplay of truths and clues that have led me to where I am today.
There are millions, of course, but a few I want to tell you about.
The First Truth
I knew somewhat early in my marriage – to a man I loved and love very much – that it wasn’t quite right. This was a massively inconvenient and complicated truth, a brutally painful one, one I didn't even understand. I didn’t know what life would look like on the other side of it, but trusting that tiny, clear voice that wouldn’t stop no matter what I did, or how I wished it to, was the hardest and most important thing I’d done in my life up to that point. Not because my life improved on the outside (in many ways, it did not and has not) as a result of listening to it, but because it was my truth, my gut – even though I didn’t have the right words to explain it, even though I didn't want it, even though it crushed me and a lot of others – and honoring it meant not denying myself, my core.
As Cheryl Strayed says in one of her Dear Sugar columns addressing three women who are questioning their own inner voices in their relationships,
“If there’s one thing I believe more than I believe anything else, it’s that you can’t fake the core. The truth that lives there will eventually win out. It’s a god we must obey, a force that brings us all inevitably to our knees.” – Cheryl Strayed
And this was it. Alongside the truth this tiny voice kept whispering existed so many other contradictory truths: I loved him. He loved me. We have a child we adore. He's kind, and good-hearted, and so many other things. And yet, at some point I knew this voice would eventually win out. I knew silencing it was futile.
The Second Truth
“What is not brought to consciousness, comes to us as fate.” –Carl Jung
Long before I was willing to acknowledge, and even longer before I was willing to accept, I recognized I had a problem with alcohol. Some deep part of me knew that all my future happiness, and likely my life, depended on stopping this thing. The starkness of this thought seemed so dramatic when it came. I told myself it was for a long time. But in the end it turned out to be exactly that stark, exactly that serious.
There were so many clues along the way, an uncountable number. But we don’t listen until we listen, and sometimes we must be forced.
Once I couldn’t deny this truth any longer, in the same way I couldn’t deny the tiny, clear voice in my marriage, the question was how to proceed. And in this case again, I was completely lost. A girl without a map, a faulty compass, and a three ton backpack of fear.
One morning last summer, after a year of trying and falling down in sobriety, I woke up in a hotel room in California, having made it through the night before without drinking at dinner. This was a huge feat for me as traveling for work and drinking were well-worn pals. The chant from Friday Night Lights that I’d written on napkins and paper scraps and hummed in my head countless times, “Clear Eyes Full Heart” popped into my mind and I had the idea to start a new Instagram with that name.
So I created it. I didn’t follow any of my friends or co-workers; I followed nobody I knew in real life. I started it because I needed a place to write and post about this thing where people who didn’t know me could see it. My truths with the people in my real life were all mixed up and I didn’t want to keep track anymore. I wanted one small place to be brutally honest. Plus, I love words and pictures, they come easy to me, creating them makes me lose time (these are clues). It was a seemingly small little thing (clues usually are), but it set forth a whole trajectory.
Following The Clues
Through the Instagram account, I started to connect with people on the same path. Each time I created a post it felt like a tiny piece of art made of my insides. Each time I hit publish, a bit of me was released, and known. I started to let strangers know me. I started to find my words, and my need to pull those words together grew, until my posts became too long for Instagram and I started to write here again. I put more things out and got feedback from these strangers, who were starting to become people I knew.
Last summer I found out Elizabeth Gilbert was doing a book signing at Brookline Booksmith for her latest book, The Signature of All Things, and despite it being inconvenient and sweltering hot, I went with my daughter and my friend, Alex. We sat in the front row because I wanted Alma to see her and hear her talk about the main character in the book – whose name is also Alma – and so that I could ask her a question if the chance arose. We sat and listened: me, mesmerized and Alma, delighted if not a little confused about the character reference (Is that me? Who is she talking about?). When Liz asked the audience for questions, I raised my shaking hand. My heart pounded as I explained to her that this was Alma, my Alma, and that I wanted to bring her here to hear about the story of her Alma, but also that I’ve loved her work since before Eat, Pray, Love, that her words helped me navigate through my own marriage and separation and life. She smiled graciously and then proceeded to have a one-on-one exchange with Alma amidst hundreds of people in this theater.
She asked her, "How is it can I see your blue eyes in such a dark theater?"
Alma answered, "I don't know."
My heart exploded.
The bit of this day I'll never forget, the part that cut right through to my bones, is her response when someone asked her how she got over "writer's block." I loathed this question, but her response was something like:
“Whatever it is that keeps you afraid, that lets fear run the show, that holds you back from letting creativity work through you, you have to work through it and let it go. It might be an illness, your body image, the place where you live, resentments you have toward your father, I don’t really know. It might be alcoholism or an unhealthy relationship…”
--- she went on, but my heart stopped there.
“It might be alcoholism.”
She mentioned it in a list of a bunch of other things and she moved on, not placing any more emphasis on its significance or difficulty. And in that moment I knew, again, that it was the thing I had to move through first. That everything else – including any potential future I might possibly have as a writer – was on the other side of that.
It was that stark, that serious.
Through having been connected to Lindsey from my old Instagram account for years (someone I’ve also never met, although we are neighbors in Boston), I found Aidan, a mama and writer living in New York, who hosts “Happier Hour” literary salons, where she brings together women in her stunning home to talk about writing and support the chosen author’s book. One of the Happier Hours finally coincided with my bi-weekly work trips to the city, and in January I was able to attend a Happier Hour with Jane Green and Mira Jacob.
It was a freezing night in Manhattan and absolutely magical. I talked to women who were very well-established writers, and several who'd left their careers in legal/healthcare/real estate to pursue writing. On that night I realized, these women are just like me. This mystical, far-away place where “writers” lived and my own place in the world were not so far apart.
I started to write more, and to be more honest in my writing, particularly about my struggle with addiction and sobriety and the dissolution of my marriage. I started to write from my heart. I started to write even when I didn’t want to. I took Ira Glass' advice and let myself write horribly. I focused on producing a bunch of work, to show up every day for this thing because it’s really all I’ve ever wanted to do.
I started to stay sober.
And because I was sober, I could write.
Because I could write, because it helped me tell the truth in words, I started to learn how to tell the truth in-person.
In meetings, in day-to-day conversations, in my friendships, I told the truth.
Because I could tell the truth, I could stay sober for another day, and then another.
I grew lighter. The thing I thought impossible to do was the thing making me lighter.
One Saturday last fall I got an email from a girl I knew from high school and college. Someone whose life ran parallel tracks to mine, but we never really knew each other well.
She told me that she wasn’t quite sure if she should reach out, but felt compelled to, that she identified with parts of my story, that she really looks forward to reading my posts, that she hoped I kept writing because it helped her.
This note came at a time of doubt and it nudged me to keep going.
This same girl then tagged me in a note on Facebook about a writing retreat Cheryl Strayed was hosting in Greece the following summer, urging me to apply. I thought, No way. Too big. Too fabulous. How would I afford it? I'd never be chosen.
But a little voice in me wouldn't shut up: Why not?
Then I couldn't stop thinking about it.
So I applied, and a month or so later, on a Friday night, I got an email that I was in. I screamed and danced around my apartment like an insane person.
So this summer I'm going to Greece to hang out with Cheryl Strayed. Pinch me one hundred times, and then again.
There are so many other details - people, twists of fate, frustrations disguised as blessings - that have played into these stories I'm telling. To map it all would be a book itself (it's happening).
This Ain't No Whimsy Thing
There are so many more details - people, twists of fate, frustrations disguised as blessings, detours and guideposts - that have played into these stories I'm telling. To map it all would require a book itself (it's happening).
The point of it all is this: we must tell our truths and follow our clues.
Hearing your truth and following your clues requires being brave. It requires staying open, being patient for so much longer than we think we can, and then moving quickly. It requires trust that we are guided, and learning to identify the difference between our ego’s will and the divine (which is tricky, because our egos are sneaky bitches). Following clues requires that we slow down and take notice, regularly. It means we sometimes have to do things that are inconvenient and against our plan, or someone else’s, entirely. It means we often proceed without clarity or a promised outcome, which is to say it requires faith, and faith is often hard-earned only by surviving our cuts and bruises.
Following your path, trusting your heart, living out your dream – all this stuff might sound so whimsical and airy-fairy. Like extravagance, a luxury, a selfish pursuit. But I think it is the exact opposite.
I believe there’s great danger in so many of us walking around separated from our hearts, unknowable to ourselves and therefore each other.
There’s great sadness, but also real risk, in not showing up in our lives as we were meant to (and I do believe we are all meant to do something) because it robs others of our gifts, and our gifts are what bring us joy, and love, and healing, and often life-saving grace. Our gifts are the least selfish thing we can bring forth, even though it may require selfishness to own them, and grow them.
I have no idea where my own path will all lead, but I do know that as of today I've been sober almost six months and I'm writing every day and I feel like I'm finally coming home. Following this path feels right in the deepest center of my being - my core - and I'm committed to staying open to what comes next.
On Christmas Eve, Alma's dad and I were tracking Santa to see where he was, how many presents he's delivered, how many miles he's covered, etc. (The story behind NORAD is interesting if you're nerdy like that.)
The first time we checked he was in Chile and had delivered some 4 million bazillion presents and you can see the number ticking up faster and faster.
Alma is five so she doesn't question the viability of Santa making it to billions of houses across the world, or how he knows what all the kids want, or how he carries all that stuff, or anything. This is one of the best things about little kids -- they fully believe in magic. They don't even consider it magic -- they just don't see limitations yet. Life is wide open and vast and it's all possible. Anna and Elsa and Olaf live in Arendelle, which is an actual place you can visit, just like Maine. Santa knows all the kids' personal wish lists and can make it from Chile to Swampscott, MA in a matter of hours.
This makes kids really fun to hang out with (sometimes). It also makes them wonderful students of God.
After A went to bed I was looking out the window and thinking about the way magic like that seeps out of our lives as we grow up, and how sad that is.
A friend of mine said that when he was little, maybe 7 or 8, he had this period where he would be riding in the car with his parents and every time they stopped at a traffic light, he'd look at the people in the cars next to him. He'd see that there were other parents, maybe with kids in the back, maybe a dog. Some cars had just one person, some a whole family. But each time they'd stop at a light he'd look into the neighboring cars and think, when the light turns green, that car and those people are going to drive off to their home, in a different neighborhood, and a different street, where they live with their family, or whoever, and that every car had this intricate, complicated web of people in a story he knew nothing about and the largeness of all those possibilities broke his brain. He said it seemed impossible and too complicated and he couldn't wrap his head around all the infinite pieces of these lives he couldn't see but knew existed because there were those people, in the cars, everywhere.
Eventually, over time and as we get older, we stop questioning the magic of our own existence and our relationships to others. Not entirely, hopefully, but we never really see the world exactly as we did when we were children again. We can't.
One of the biggest gifts of being sober is that I am starting to see the world with brand new eyes again. I am able to take notice of the smallest details - the textures of the sidewalk or someone's voice, light catching different angles, the miraculous shape of my daughter's nose - as if I'm seeing things for the first time. It's not like this all the time. Hardly. But it is in the morning, in the "thin places" as Elizabeth Gilbert calls them, when we first wake up and our ego is down and we're not quite awake but not asleep and our senses haven't been arrested by the noises of life yet. It is like this then and at other times too, and I am continually surprised at how much I was missing by being dulled out, dimmed down, either anesthetized by booze or smothered by the anxiety and exhaustion of a hangover. Even in the times I'd gone for brief stretches without drinking, the fog didn't lift - it takes a lot longer than a few days to clear up.
The last stretch of the year before Christmas I was struggling hard. Big, heavy depression type stuff that came out of seemingly nowhere and swallowed me whole for a couple of weeks. I've had plenty of experience with these dips, but the depth of this one surprised and scared me. I hated everyone who could move through the holiday season without thinking about avoiding alcohol. I hated my entire office for their bar crawls and yankee swaps with boozie apple cider. I hated my family and the fact that although all of them drink (some, a lot) I was the one with the big red A on my forehead, forever x-ed out of that type of time spent together. I hated AA and all their stupid fucking sayings. I even felt like Alma would be better off if she had a mom who wasn't so sad, so lonely, so loser-ish. I burst into tears at inopportune times, like when someone came into my office to ask me a question, or while sitting on a crowded train. My chest was clenched shut and all my usual methods for pulling in light were failing me: yoga, sun, baths, reading, meetings, food, sleep, meditation. Nothing worked. I was just stuck.
One evening I was lying in my bed again, in the dark, emptied of tears and energy and I thought: I can't do this. I didn't want to die, but I didn't want to really live, either. I didn't want to move to get a cup of water, or go pee, or take out the trash, or call my mom back, or whatever the next thing was. I didn't want to do anything except sleep forever.
A tiny whisper of a thought bubbled up to the surface of my conscious and it went something like this: You must believe in things you cannot see, think, feel or even imagine.
I remembered a talk I used to listen to by Wayne Dyer, where he recounts the time when he started to learn about quantum physics and Deepak Chopra said to him about the subject, it's not only strange to think about, it's stranger than you can think.
It's stranger than you can think.
Like Alma with Santa Claus or my friend considering the cars next to him. It occurred to me that the reality that existed in my mind might be...limited. Narrow. A faulty perception. I thought about a conversation I had as a kid when I first read about God's creation of the world and I asked someone - I can't even recall who - how it was possible, how one person could create all this? They told me God doesn't operate under the same rules as people do; that He's infinitely more powerful than we can ever imagine. This made my head hurt, but it unlocked an entire realm of possibility that didn't exist just seconds prior.
This darkness carried on for more days still, but that little thread of a thought cracked a tiny hole in it and a hole was all I needed, I suppose. On Christmas day I felt more warmth and wholehearted hope than I had in some time. It was such a change from the drowning feeling I'd had for weeks prior - kind-of like the first day you're feeling well after a bad flu and simply not being sick is an incredible relief.
So, I don't know. So much of this journey has been about suspending disbelief. Magical thinking. Hanging on for a lot longer than I think I can, putting one foot in front of the other and trusting the universe to roll its tough-loving hands over me. Imagining the world as I did when I was a child: limitless, enchanting and full of Santa Claus magic.
P.S. If you've never seen Hyperbole and a Half's comics about depression, take a spin. They're brilliant and beautifully true.