Your goodness doesn’t cancel out your darkness nor the other way around. As Thomas Lloyd Qualls says, “Believing you are good is like believing in the half moon.” The unlit side of the moon is always there, whether we see a sliver or full, creamy sphere.
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 got a migraine last Friday that hung around until Saturday afternoon. The kind that pulled me into catatonic sleep – pillow over the head style – and also woke me up several times in the night, from the pain. At one point I woke up parched, head pounding, and thought I was hungover.
A surge of panic rushed through me, followed by the familiar-as-a-second-skin wave of nausea, the “Nonononono. Not again. What happened. Fuck.”
I realized immediately that I wasn’t hungover, but the adrenaline had already released. I closed my eyes and gently put the pillow back over my head while my heart pounded and waves of anxiety lapped against my psyche. I repeated to myself You are ok. You are ok. You are ok. until my heartbeat slowed.
All day thereafter I thought about what it was like waking up that way, over and over again. How grateful I am that I haven't woken up that way in a while. How far away that feeling seems, but how close it is, too. How goddamn slippery the slope was to get here. How lucky I feel to have kept climbing, to have kept reaching, for something I couldn’t even see. How lucky I am that I still want to keep reaching.
I wrote some things down to try and describe exactly what it was like for that year and a half when I didn’t want to be sober but knew I couldn’t keep drinking. When almost every day was an utter struggle. To drink. To not drink. To find my place in the world. To come to terms with what felt like a shit hand I’d been dealt – the unfairness of it, the anger, the loneliness, the incessant questions beating in my heart:
Who will ever love me? Who will want this?
So yesterday I wrote down exactly what made it so hard because I never want to forget. I want to remember so I can say to someone staring down the same uncertainty: I have been there. I remember. I know. Let me tell you.
I flashed back to a Sunday in the fall of 2013.
My husband and I were recently separated. The transitions with our three-year-old daughter were still new. He had just picked her up and the silence that fell after they shut the door was deafening. I was alone. In the house that we lived in. A house much too big for one.
It was a beautiful day. The afternoon light danced all over the empty living room.
I was newly single. I had blocks of free time to myself suddenly. My instinct was to go out, find some pals to play with, to drink away the afternoon, the emptiness, the space.
But I had lost that right. A couple months prior when I very publicly left my daughter unattended while I was drinking (not the first, or the last, of my low points) I lost the right to go drink an afternoon away.
I couldn’t justify saying “fuck it” one more time. Not with a clean conscience. I knew too much.
Suddenly it felt like the world completely closed in on me. Like I could actually hear doors shutting. SLAM! There’s the door to fun. SLAM! There’s the door to love. SLAM! There’s the door to excitement and spontaneity and silliness. SLAM! There’s the door to life as you know it.
I crumbled into a pile of tears in my oversized red chair. I wailed to the empty room and the beautiful light. I cried for a long, long time.
Some might hear this and think, Really? All those things you’d yoked to drinking? And my answer would be, Yes – all those things. Over 36 years of living and 20 years of drinking, I had linked a lot of life to drinking. It had not always been my enemy; it was actually great fun for a long time. Omni-present but not oppressive. A glue in my relationships. An activity that spun up whatever I was doing into something a little more sparkly, giddy, enticing. And now that I was to give it up, I didn’t know where to be, or how, or with whom.
Yet, the saddest girl in the world sitting there on that red chair was the same girl who woke up in her bed almost daily in a panic, shaking, and confused because of drinking. She was the same girl who didn’t know how a night would turn out once she started – truly did not know – and that aura of possibility had turned from excitement to terror somewhere along the way. She was the same girl that was afraid of herself much of the time. Whose hands shook. Whose heart raced constantly. Who couldn't look people in the eye. Who needed caffeine in crazy doses to wake up and long runs to quell her nerves. She was the same girl, and yet, she couldn’t reconcile the two. No conscious connection in the light of day.
So I cried until I couldn’t cry anymore and then I just sat there, staring across my empty living room.
I’m not sure what else happened that day, but I know I didn’t drink. And I know I was very aware of this fact. That’s how the earliest days felt to me and what was so goddam unnerving: I was aware of myself constantly. Like an invisible current of electricity was circulating through me – a low-level, barely detectable, but everywhere current that left me raw and jumpy. Aware of everything I was doing and not doing. Here I am, driving my daughter home from school, not going to get wine. Here I am taking a walk to the park, not drinking. Here I am, cooking dinner, without wine. Here I am riding the train home. Here I am sitting in a meeting. Here I am running, sipping coffee, talking to a co-worker, eating lunch, sending a text, watching House of Cards. Here I am coming out of my skin.
I constantly had the urge to unplug that current. Like someone running around with their hair on fire looking for any body of water to plunge into. I wanted relief. Fast. Now. Sometimes I wanted it with terrifying urgency. A lot of times I just said, Oh, fuck it, and I’d order the wine, go to the liquor store, say yes to going out, or whatever. Because it works. It worked. Drinking let me unplug, say yes, care less, be social, be a part, be free. And even at the end, it still worked, even if only for an hour. But that hour? That time when the chemicals in your brain are rearranging nicely--it’s a relief, and it’s powerful, and I get why we do it.
So for a long time, a year or more, I kept doing this yo-yo thing. In and out, back and forth, ugh and stuck. And I get why. I get why it was so hard. I also wish I could tell that girl on the big red chair a few things about how I feel today.
If I could, this is what I'd say:
I know it sucks, sucks, sucks.
Tell the truth.
The raw current will subside, and in its place you will plug into something beautiful.
The thing you are afraid of giving up -- it is not what holds you together.
You are going to fall apart. This is good.
You are brave.
You are so much stronger than you know.
You wonder who will ever love you? The whole universe.
You wonder who will ever want this? You will.
Just keep going.
This is the beginning, sweet girl, not the end.
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.