I am almost five months sober and I am incredibly grateful for my path at this moment. I recently have started socializing more and entertaining in my home. I have gone to several events outside my home where there is alcohol and I am comfortable with that and accept that it will always be there. I struggle with what I do in my own home. Do I buy booze for others? Do I keep some in the house for someone when they stop by? Tell them my house is BYOB? Or can I have nothing at all in my home?
After one of the first recovery meetings I attended a woman said to me, “You never have to drink again.” I thought, is that supposed to be comforting? Because it makes me want to die.
I didn’t want to not drink again. I wanted to drink normally, passably. I wanted to go back in time and un-fuck-up all the things I fucked up. I wanted to erase the series of bad nights that other people knew about and re-claim my position as fun friend, cool co-worker, up for anything pal, silly sister, good time daughter, mom like all the other moms who can have playdates and wine, girl who can go out for happy hour.
Unfortunately or fortunately the circumstances of how things unfolded for me in the end were public enough that people in my life whose opinions mattered (family, my ex) were invested in my sobriety. And to say they were invested is to say they were at the “enough, or else” place. Specifically, “enough, or you’re not going to have your daughter anymore” which was really the only consequence I cared about.
I was pissed. Piiiiiiisssssssed. Angry at myself for the instances that got me caught and pegged into that place. Angry that I was now set aside into the group of “people with a problem” when pretty much everyone else in my life behaved in ways that arguably edged close to that place, but didn’t quite cross over. Angry that the distinction actually did matter, and my opinions about it meant nothing.
I wanted another option. The two I was faced with were both equally undesirable, impossible: to keep going as I had, or to get sober.
I wanted a 3rd door.
There had to be a 3rd door.
I was going to find the 3rd door.
I tried to un-know the fact there wasn’t one in many ways. I kept close tally of who knew I was and wasn’t drinking and made sure I had a few reserves to hang with. I didn’t let anyone in AA or other sober circles get too close to me. I kept quiet about my going-ons, compartmentalized. I told partial truths to everyone and the whole truth to no one. There was nobody watching me at home now that I was separated, so…nobody was watching me at home. I used the excuse that a few good friends had decided to leave the program, that my dad – after ten years of sobriety – decided to start drinking again and seems to be just fine. I searched for that third door with the desperation and denial of someone in the deep grief of having lost a loved one unexpectedly. Surely there must be another way. Surely they can’t be gone. Surely I will wake up and this will all be different. Surely this is not my life.
But it was. It was my life and this was my thing and I could not undo it or fix it or make it not so.
I had a similar experience when I found out I was pregnant. It's hard to admit that even today, but it’s the honest truth: I didn’t want to be pregnant when I got pregnant. God had a much better plan then, too.
Someone close to me said early on, “So what! So you can’t drink! It’s just alcohol, Laura. Do you know how many people don’t drink?”
First of all, no. No, I don’t know how many people don’t drink, and the last time I checked, we don’t hang out with any of them. I believe we’ve even said jokingly, “I don’t trust people who don’t drink.” Ha ha. Wink wink.
More importantly, this person – who I love, and has nothing but the best intentions for me – enjoys their own drinks, hasn’t gone many days without a few in as long as I can remember, and that hasn’t changed just because of my problem. This same person, who doesn’t have a problem per-se, who can say to me, “so what!” also ain’t givin’ up their own “just alcohol.” What a mindfuck. How unfair. And how little it matters. Turns out, that person’s relationship with alcohol (and everyone else’s) is actually none of my business. This is something anyone who is faced with sobriety has to come to terms with: something like 80% of the population drinks. Some people don’t give a shit about drinking, but most people do, even if a little. When you don’t drink, most people wonder why. Are you pregnant? Religious? Medical condition? Oh, you have a problem. And then it gets weird. This matters much less to me now but it mattered a fuck of lot, for a long time.
Navigating all this sucks horribly. More than anyone who hasn’t faced it can imagine. It’s easy enough to say, “no big deal!” but for someone who has fallen into the problem area, it’s a big, big, big deal. The biggest deal. Telling someone who cares about drinking the way I did that it isn’t a big deal is like telling someone with asthma that breathing through a straw is no big deal. Except asthma doesn’t have the added bonus points of stigma and shame. People who have asthma aren't embarrassed about needing more air. They've probably never lied about it, either.
I write this today from a place of not looking for that third door and with a zillion pounds of compassion and empathy for the version of me that searched for it so hard.
I write this today having accepted there was no 3rd door breath by breath, messily, and over time.
I write this today knowing I couldn’t have arrived here one moment sooner, and that I’ve only arrived for today.
I write this today to tell anyone that has heard “You never have to drink again” and felt like taking a machete to that person’s ears, I know and me too.
I write this today for anyone thinking no third door is some kind of cruel punishment--a consequence of being broken.
I write this today to say the prizes behind door two, the one where you step into the mystery of a whole different life – the one you don’t want and wouldn’t have chosen, not in a million years – are far more fabulous and dazzling than anything you could conjure up behind door number one. Fabulous not in the way Beyonce is on the outside, but like The Buddha was on the inside. Dazzling in the way the sunlight dances on water: magically, simply, gently and all over.
Door number one, the door I’d given anything to stick with, that door sucked. That door was total destruction. That door was a half-life and broken dreams and unrealized potential and a lot of selfishness and fear. But it sure looked pretty; it looked like everything. Door number one was the great palace lie: you come in here, it'll all be alright. Door number one lied to me.
I was so angry there was no third door.
I am so grateful there was no third door.
I might be angry again.
I’ll hopefully stay grateful, too.
But at least now I know.
In “The History of Love” by Nicole Krauss, one of the main characters, Leo Gursky, and his best friend develop a system of communication where one of them can bang on the ceiling or floor to ask if the other one is alive. (They live in apartments above and below each other.) Three taps for the question. Two taps back means “yes”, one tap is “no”. I don’t need to point out the obvious hilarity in this system, but the theme carries out right through to the end of the book, where Leo is figuratively reunited with Alma. Alma, I said.
She said, Yes.
Alma, I said again.
She said, Yes.
Alma, I said.
She tapped my twice.
I was in yoga class on Tuesday night, we did all kinds of crazy poses I hadn’t done before. We also chanted at both the beginning and end of class, which is unusual, and I’m sure if there were any first-timers in the class they were sufficiently spooked enough to not return. But, I’ve come to love the chanting now and then. Something about the way sanskrit syllables tumble through my mouth, so foreign, and although I only know the meaning of a few words, there is a force behind the sentiment in those chants. They are all purposeful if not a bit odd, full of wisdom and so, so very old. It’s like being in the presence of someone very powerful, yet you can’t explain why, you just feel it and are glad to be there to absorb some of that wonderfulness, whatever it is. The chant we did at the end was one I didn’t recognize and was particularly beautiful. We transitioned from sitting and actually singing the words ourselves to lying down in shivasana and listening to them being sung by some amazing voice over the music system. Maybe it was God :). There’s something so raw about laying in that position at the end of practice. This is something that has really evolved since I’ve started doing more yoga. Where I used to just dissolve into immense relief that it was OVER, I started to find other things, namely space and emptiness. It’s not all peaceful in that it always feels good - oh no - but it’s whatever it is and there’s space enough for it all to exist and in that space I have learned to stay, stay, stay. With whatever comes up just stick around and let things come and go.
Tuesday night as I was laying there, it happened to be particularly peaceful. I felt very well taken care of surrounded by the pretty music in that dark, warm room and the tiredness that had settled into my body after all the turning and bending. And then I got a tap, tap, tap in my belly. My body perked up to take notice of what felt like…kicking! And indeed, tap tap tap, it was the first time I could unmistakeably identify the movement in my stomach as baby movement. I took in a long, deep breath and a huge smile grew on my face as I moved my hand to my belly over the spot where she was moving. Tap, tap.
"Hi, little girl."
Tonight I returned to Baptiste Yoga Studio in Cambridge for the first time since July 10. I remember the exact date because it was the last day of a 40 day bootcamp that I did there earlier this year. With the exception of a few days early on in the 40 day experience, I was pregnant and did not know it. When the 40 days were up I was so relieved that I didn’t have to return there again - not until I was ready at least - because holy hell was that a rough ride. I remember thinking it was much harder than I thought it should have been, and having been semi-regular to the practice I thought I knew what to expect. But physically, mentally, emotionally, it was just really tough. I threw up a couple times during morning practices, and I blamed it on the heat or dehydration or the night of drinking before (NOT part of the program). I also cried more times than not, which was equally surprising. I’d cried before, during practice or at the end while lying in shivasana, from the mere release of letting go whatever it was that I’d been dragging around. But every single time? I’ve come to learn since then that yoga can have that effect - through releasing your physical body you often tap into and unlock emotional stuck points and memories you’ve been storing. At the time, though, I just thought I was a mess, and in many ways I was. I mean, I was pregnant and I didn’t even know it. Nevermind anything else, my body was busy trying to build a human and I was dragging it through grueling 90 minute practices in 100 degree heat every single day. Not kind.
I also went on a fruit fast diet for a few days somewhere in there. I remember being blindingly tired as well but too stubborn, too frustrated to give in. Was I not listening to ANYTHING that they were saying in the practice? All that stuff about being where you are, surrendering, having some compassion for yourself and your body, letting go and just BREATHING now and then? I wasn’t. In fact, when my mind goes back there now I can still feel the tightening sensation that accompanies holding one’s breath for a very long time.
But that too was part of where I was and part of the journey. Toward the end of the 40 days I decided to try yoga at South Boston Yoga. It was such a breath of fresh air for my mind and my body at the time, to go through a practice that was completely different in every way and it wasn’t hot! Hallelujiah it wasn’t hot in there. My mindset at the time was that it couldn’t be as good or as powerful as Baptiste, because physcialy it just felt so much easier, not to mention the instructor made jokes and laughed and the general pace was just slower and less intense. But it was good enough, and it was so much closer to home, and I just needed a break from all the madness that ensued in that 40 day program for a while. Little did I know that I was cracking open the door to all the other aspects of yoga that until then I’d been unaware of (namely, all the non-physical aspects that I’d heard of buy ignored I just want a good workout blah blah blah). And little did I know that I’d end up in a teacher training program through the first instructor I had there at SBY, and also that, oh, I was going to find out a thing or two about a “good” and “powerful” experience.
I didn’t think I’d return to Baptiste until my pregnant days were past me. If you’d have asked me a month ago I’d have said “no way Jose, can’t do it.” But I started to get inquisitive about it a few days ago and today I found myself checking the schedule and the hesitation was gone, I actually felt excited about taking my pregnant body to class and seeing how it felt. What I discounted was that I would also be taking my pregnant mind to class, too, and the host of things I’ve cultivated through teacher training and just living life in the past few months. Namely, a new well of patience and a some compassion for where I am and also where I am not these days.
And it was so, so great. I found myself comforted by the known sequences and habituation of the practice, the familiar jolly Scottish accent of one of my favorite instructors, the room itself, and even the heat - the heat! It reminded me that change can be ever so incremental, maddeningly unnoticeable until something reminds you of your previous state and you are able to see the contrast so clearly. Oh, so I haven’t been beating my head against a wall? I haven’t been walking in circles for days and weeks and months on end? I can grow and open up and things can change? Phew. PHEW.
Now, it wasn’t all the perfection of yoga practice as we know it. I couldn’t do some things very gracefully and I was slipping and sliding along the mat. But I realized I have a lot more space in myself than I did before. I know a lot more about the meaning behind the poses, anatomically speaking, and I can pick up on a lot of the asanas (poses) which before just sounded like Sanskrit jibberish. All those things are kind of fun and neat. But more importantly I let myself stop when I needed to and congratulated myself for not accompanying those stops with one bit of agression or the self-degredation I’m so good at. And perhaps most importantly I understood why I was there, and that it has very little to do with sweating and bending, and a lot to do with letting go and letting go. At the end of the practice, Gregor (the instructor) said something so profound, and without any contemplation I knew exactly what he meant, and I recognized that last time I was there I would not have. He said (in Scottish brogue, it sounds so much better) "Let your mind be guided by your life, instead of allowing yourself to believe that your mind IS your life." Oh, these yogi people. They’re just full of these gems. I’m pretty sure that he doesn’t even pre-meditate these bits of wisdom he bestows on a sea of sweaty, vulnerable bodies. They just roll right off his tongue like an extension of his being as natural as his arm or leg. But to the rest of us, it takes a long time to understand what something like that means, and more importantly, to actually live it.
And here is where I bring it all back to music, again. Laying there in shivasana reminded me of this song by Bon Iver that I’ve held so close to my heart for months now. It’s the kind of song I can’t hear without feeling a shift in my gut and a little tightness in my throat because it’s just so damn beautiful. And like all good music it bestows a certain feeling of recognition, a shared experience, so that when you think maybe you’re all alone you hear a certain song and go, "Thank God, my hips don’t lie EITHER!" or "No, that’s right, you just don’t know ‘bout me." Or in this case, when Justin Vernon sings “Re: Stacks” you understand that someone else has found themselves in the midst of something seemingly too tough and that eventually, eventually there is an unlocking and a lift away.
Last Friday, we got confirmation that the little being growing in my belly is indeed a girl (!). I had a feeling this would be the case, but it was nice (and scary) to have that confirmation. Like most girls, I’ve had my share of favorite names throughout the years. I remember the first name I liked was “Katrina” in the 3rd grade and that was TOTALLY going to be the name of my baby girl when I grew up to be an adult in one hundred years. I’ve had some real gem favorites along the way, ranging from cutesy to embarrassing to kitschy. But when I read one of my favorite books of all time, “The History of Love" by Nicole Krauss, I immediately threw all other name choices from the top of the list, as I would be naming my daughter Alma, after the narrator of the book and also the subject of the primary story (not the same person, both Almas). Alma means "soul" in Spanish, and in Italian. I think of this book almost daily and pull my copy out to flip through the dogeared pages now and then to read my favorite passages, always to a sigh, a smile, an ache or a goddam I wish I could write like that.
Those who know me best know that I claimed this name and now I’m being asked, "So, will she be an Alma?" I find myself hesitating. I suppose I’m both sad and excited to give the name away (so much as it is mine to give). Like your most favorite possession that holds unspeakable significance - that of discovering new, identifying, changing, fall in love, remembering old love, recognition, confirmation, and so much more - ah, the magic of a good book. There’s an element of reverence and attachment to both the book and the name, but how better to let it live than to give it to my own little girl?
This is a passage from the book that explains Alma, and just one of the reasons that I fell in love with her, the idea of her, and the book itself.
My mother used to read to me from The History of Love."The first woman may have been Eve, but the first girl will always be Alma," she’d say, the Spanish book open on her lap while I lay in bed. This was when I was four or five, before Dad got sick and the book was put away on the shelf. "Maybe the first time you saw here you were ten. She was standing in the sun scratching her legs. Or tracing letters in the dirt with a stick. Her hair was being pulled. Or she was pulling someone’s hair. And a part of you was drawn to her, and part of you resisted - wanting to ride off on your bicycle, kick a stone, remain uncomplicated. In the same breath you felt the strength of a man, and the self-pity that made you feel small and hurt. Part of you thought: Pleas don’t look at me. If you don’t, I can still turn away. And part of you thought: Look at me.
"If you remember the first time you saw Alma, you also remember the last. She was shaking her head. Or disappearing across a field. Or through your window. Come back, Alma! you shouted. Come back! Come back!
"But she didn’t.
"And though you were grown up by then, you felt as lost as a child. And though your pride was broken, you felt as vast as your love for her. She was gone, and all that was left was the space where you’d grown around her, like a tree that grows around a fence.
"For a long time, it remained hollow. Years, maybe. And when at last it was filled again, you knew that the new love you felt for a woman would have been impossible without Alma. If it weren’t for her, there would never have been an empty space, or the need to fill it.
"Of course there are certain cases in which the boy in question refuses to stop shouting at the top of his lungs for Alma. Stages a hunger strike. Pleads. Fills a book with his love. Carries on until she has no choice but to come back. Every time she tries to leave, knowing what has to be done, the boy stops her, begging like a fool. And so she always returns, no matter how often she leaves or how far she goes, appearing soundlessly behind him and covering his eyes with her hands, spoiling for him anyone who could ever come after her."