I’ve been speaking on and off again recently to someone very new to recovery–only days in, barely weeks. She is angry, beyond angry, and cynical and frustrated and resentful and…well, you get the point. Mostly, I think she’s looking for someone/something to blame and looking even harder for a way out. In short, it’s like looking in a mirror.

I don’t have to dig very far in my past to find the Me who was a walking defense mechanism. I don’t even have to look that far into my psychology to find these feelings, simmering like a black hot spring under the good earth I’ve been planting over top. I don’t count it as humility to be able to recognize these things in myself. It’s just a measure of my grasp on an unpleasant reality. On the one hand, I like to think I’ve traveled very far past the days when I lived as one, gigantic red nerve just waiting to cry or lash out. On the other, I live in the knowledge that, in some ways, it would take very little to get back there. One drink, of course.

I don’t believe in a “cure” for alcoholism, simply because I have not found a cure for stress or bad days or accidents or despair. As the phraseology goes: treatements, but no cure. Spending time, even very little time, with someone just days or weeks into her or his recovery is one form of treatment that is almost universally acknowledged among recovering addicts. When I ventured back into recovery circles in 2010, I didn’t realize I was a walking, talking memento mori–but that is probably the newcomer’s most important function in recovery circles. The newly recovering addict is a skull on the desk, the painting of the skeleton, the “remembrance of death.”

Hundreds of years ago, the pious kept these objects in full sight–particularly in their private rooms–to remind them of the inevitability, the closeness of death. In my twenties, I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around this medieval/Renaissance habit of scholars and theologians. At best, it seemed like a quaint, foreign custom. At worst, fetishistic. I identified more easily with Hamlet, whose reaction to a skull is just a commonsensical freak out, followed by a little ego trip and nausea. Skulls belong in graves, not on top of the furniture.

Raised a good protestant, I still don’t quite get the power of the fully physical representation of Our Last End. (Southern Baptism will teach anyone that the scariest place to be is your own head. No need to decorate the lobby with Halloween enthusiasms.) Now that I am some years (and many close calls) nearer to my own death, it’s somewhat easier to understand the practice. I also understand the memento in its complexity a little better: these were not blunt objects designed to conjure simply the last gasp and the shroud, but were to remind the owner too that we can hasten death; we can live in it. For the medieval miind (and those religious folks who essentially keep the medieval world alive today), sin is a form of death. John Milton went so far to allegorize Sin as the daughter of Satan and Death as their incestuous offspring. (Paradise Lost gets serious kink points for this one in my opinion.) To live in sin is to live in death. For anyone coming out of addiction, it is easy enough to acknowledge that there are ways of living that more closely resemble death than life, ways of being that bring on a wish for death rather than survival.

At the very beginning of my recovery, I was encouraged to write a list of all the things my drinking had done that had led to suffering for me and other people. I realized quickly that this could be a very short list (“It destroyed everything”) or a very long one (if I decided to name all the things my addiction ruined). What one winds up with will hardly be comprehensive–because addiction’s losses are hardly comprehensible–but effective, just as the scholar did not have to look at every skull in the world to know he’d die eventually. One was plenty. I was told to look at this list any time I felt like drinking or any time it occurred to me that I wasn’t “really” an alcoholic.

I never look at this list, by the way. I just know it’s there, just as the scholar knew the skull was there without having to look at it, perhaps having even forgotten it a little. These mementos of my addiction–whether represented in my own hand in a journal or freshly from the experience of someone new to sobriety–will occasionally catch me off-guard, however. Listening to them, I am emotionally transported to the pain and rawness of addiction and the hard scrabble work of early weeks in recovery. I do not want to go back there, but it is good to go back there. It is psychologically good, if a little painful, and warns me against complacency. It’s also less conspicuous than keeping a skull on my desk, which would be weird and I think, somehow, less effective, though I don’t ever rule anything out.

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Valuing Time

Posted: January 15, 2013 in Tuesday Reflections
Tags: ,

At work recently I have learned the hard way (how else?) that if I don’t value my time, no one else will.  It’s a weakness of most egocentrics to believe that everyone is aware of how much time we’re spending doing what and how much spending the Time doing the What “costs” us–in terms of emotional energy, hours or days spent away from loved ones, etc.  The truth is very simple.  Most people are too busy spending their Time on their multitudinous Whats to care about our time.  Moreover, anyone benefiting from our time (employers, needy friends, volunteer organizations) will be more than happy to take as much of our time as they need without the slightest compunction.

Here is how I managed to arrive at this underwhelming conclusion:  My boss called me into her office for a chat.  She’d already called me in two hours early that day to fill a staff shortage.  I was pretty tired by the time this invitation rolled around.  She said she’d noticed that I seemed “Frustrated.  More frustrated than usual.”  Believing these were the opening bars in the symphony of How Can We Help?, I admitted that I had indeed been feeling frustrated–“Overworked and little undervalued” was a phrase that came most readily.  We’re woefully understaffed, and I’ve been doing at least two people’s jobs at once.  It’s not getting any better, and management’s promises for genuine relief come in drips or not at all.  At the office, this is one of the more expected daily headlines.

To my astonishment, my boss counter-intuitively suggested that my real problem was that I wasn’t managing the meager staff I had very well and that management needed me to be doing something else in addition to what I’d been doing (or something like this).  In other words, the key to my happiness lay in working harder.

I stared open-mouthed at her, as she nodded grimly, and nodded myself (astonished), and left.

After a day of meditating on this drive-by shooting, I decided I was glad it had happened.  Very glad, in fact–though my boss herself could not have been more supremely wrong than a tobacco executive at a Lung Cancer Society meeting.  I know I don’t have the staff to do the work, no matter how cannily they’re managed.  And I know I can’t do two jobs at once, no matter how gifted my multitasking.  But, in the end, what I knew I could do and needed to do was to listen, actually listen, to what was being communicated to me–not said, but communicated.

My boss was actually saying, “We don’t feel like dealing with this reality.  We’ve decided that if you’re having a problem, it’s your problem.  And nothing that happens will stop us from asking more of you.”  After sifting through the subtext, this is the sum of the conversation, and thank goodness for my recovery, because I actually have a response to this Machiavellian trap that doesn’t involve crawling under the bed with a pint of Smirnoff.

Say it with me:  BOUNDARIES.  (Feels good, doesn’t it?)

I wound up composing a short, but very clear, memo to my superiors about this brief meeting–stating the way I understood their expectations and the way I was prepared to meet their expectations.  I also outlined the things I would NOT do meet them.  It felt unfathomably good to put these boundaries in place and know my employers themselves had given me the bricks to erect them.  Of course, boundaries are about US, and they don’t have to be stated.  My unspoken boundary now is, “Call all you like, but don’t count on my dropping everything to come.”  My litmus test is more complicated than this, but I feel good about giving myself permission to value the work I do and the time I spend doing it.

I’m not a list-maker.  I’m not a do-er of things just to say I have done them.  These are not really the ways I make my time “count.”  I think, however, that I’m developing the understanding that my time is valuable only when I take responsibility for it, when I make conscious, deliberate choices about how to use it, and when I judge its use through the lens of statement #8:  “The most important part of life is emotional and spiritual growth.  Daily I put my life in order, knowing which are the priorities.”

One Sober Response to the Newtown Shootings

Posted: December 19, 2012 in Uncategorized

The children and adults killed last week in Newtown, Connecticut are starting to be buried.  The media is claiming this is a “tipping point” for conversations about gun control.  President Obama and other politicians are going out of their way to take the tragedy seriously–or to appear to take it seriously, which, these days, may actually amount to the same thing.  And social media has been a cyber-storm of hand-wringing, self-righteousness, blame-throwing, and misattribution (e.g. that Morgan Freeman’s rant was hoaxed). 

I thought, why not add to the melee? 

I tend to look at everything through a lens of recovery, which helps me suss out the bull at least 90% of the time, including my own.  And when I look at an event like this–and look at the responses to it, which quickly become the way the event is experienced–I think of our country like a drunk waking up in the hospital, or in jail, or on the street.  We all know “there’s a problem,” because it’s impossible to ignore right this second, but almost none of us wants to be honest enough or make the hard choices that might bring us back to sanity… 

The two things we absolutely do not want to give up are ego and control.  Part of what is at stake when something/someone is sick is an acceptance that the disease just IS.  For me, as an alcoholic, admitting there IS a problem means admitting that there will ALWAYS be a problem.  My disease isn’t something that gets cured in one hospital stay or after taking a few pills.  It is an ongoing, daily maintenance of physical, mental, and emotional wellness.  Fundamentally, recovery is predicated on a humble acceptance that mere will, mere ego cannot solve the problem.  In response to last week’s tragedy, I would say that we still haven’t accepted it.  We may say, “well, tragedies happen,” as a way of explaining it, but that’s not acceptance.  Acceptance is taking responsibility.  Acceptance is willingness to LET GO of previous behaviors and beliefs for the sake of a sanity that (at the moment) seems impossible.

Here are some observations:

We all know our lives are spiritually bankrupt.  The political right wins this one, though not in the way they think.  For instance, only the professionally deluded would believe that 20 children are massacred because they can’t pray in public schools.  What is true is that these shootings–which so often happen in affluent, suburban communities–reveal a nasty disconnect with anything but the most superficial of human values. We sob at A Christmas Carol and vote to cut social welfare.  We speak of gratitude and simplicity at Thanksgiving, but take our children to the mall as a reward for good performance.  We nod about forgiveness and forebearance, but the second we feel we are not “getting what we deserve,” we’re screaming down the phone at someone, or marching into a pricipal’s office, or posting something idiotic on Facebook.  Retaliate, retaliate, retaliate.  And we refuse to see problems unless they affect us directly. And, as I say, we all sort of know this.

We all know we’re not living in a Zombie Apocalypse. There are too many guns.  We all sort of know this one too, but somehow it just doesn’t get through the larval stage in most people’s brains.  Some woman I know vaguely actually said, “I agree that automatic weapons should be illegal, but I’m going to use all my guns to protect my kids from the crazies who have them.”  This attitude probably makes perfect sense during the Zombie Apocalypse, but it’s hardly a sane strategy for reducing gun violence.  Any time a tragedy like this occurs, suddenly we feel we’re in in the Zombie Apocalypse:  the zombies are at the gate, and we’ve got to shoot them, SHOOT THEM NOW!  Feelings aren’t facts.  That’s what recovery teaches me.  Guns aren’t the only problem, but why not just admit that they are a BIG PART of the problem? Weapons are too easy to get; there are too many of them.  It is a big issue, and it will require compromise.  We all know this too, but our fear and our feeling of powerlessness enervate us when they should motivate us. 

We know we don’t care about sick people.  Oh…we care about them when they’re on our radar, which they rarely are, but not enough to take care of all of them.  Not at our expense.  Our attitude is this:  if the guy down the road can’t afford health care, screw him.  I don’t want to take care of him and his kids.  What happens if he’s in line for an operation before me???  That’s not FAIR!  This attitude would make some sense if we didn’t know that disease–all kinds of disease–spreads, has community effects, has to be “paid for” somewhere down the line by all of us.  This is as true of mental illness as it is of anything else; and, we’ve witnessed often enough the particularly high price of not paying for mental health care. 

We know all these things, but we’re very attached to our egos.  Instead of acting deliberatively, we fob off responsibility, deny any solution that isn’t an immediate and total fix, and act self-righteous when anyone points out that we could be doing something different. 

Here are my favorite sleight-of-hand tricks for avoiding the problem:

Play the parent card.  This is the most favored and most nauseating chestnut in the battery of internet responses to this tragedy.  People just start any conversation with, “As a parent, I…” and I, for one, stop listening.  Whatever they say is going to be all about how their empathy is special and how any response to the tragedy–no matter how unhelpful or vacuous–is justified by their donation of DNA and/or food and shelter to a particular youngster.  Having children doesn’t make me MORE responsive to an event–though, by some people’s own admissions–it might make me more irrational.  Hyper-emotional investment doesn’t make one’s position more valid or more relevant.  If anything, it might  make a response more suspect.  It’s decidedly not an excuse to invalidate someone else’s response.  (For the record, I’ve got two kids.)

Play the “I’m more aware of international tragedies than you” card. Other than self-righteousness, what do we get out of pointing out the fact that so few Americans don’t pay attention to Afghanistan, Syria, Darfur, and a thousand other places where horrible things happen to children every day?  I certainly see a connection between our failure to care about vulnerable people around the world and our failure to care about similarly vulnerable people here.  But, I think this point of view only gets adopted when people don’t want to have a stated position on gun control, on health care, or on cultural values.  Nope.  Easier to try to point out others’ failures, the media’s failures, politicians’ failures than to articulate a position that might be up for criticism.

Play the media card.  This is the absolute BEST way to avoid having a meaningful position on this kind of violence. It’s so meta.  In the link I posted above, Roger Ebert (that paragon of social activism and theory…how not love him?) said he was “proud” that the newspaper he worked for wouldn’t run school killing stories on the front page anymore.  According to our favorite pudgy movie critic, it’s not movies and t.v. fiction glorifying violence, it’s CNN.  That is WONDERFUL!  Just think of it:  absolutely no interrogation of the idea that the newspaper has tacitly accepted the fact that there will be more school killiings.  Great feint, Rog.  But here’s the thing:  in the internet era, we’re all the media; consumers and producers.  I’m producing some now, for goodness sake. Blaming the media is the ultimate elliptical fallacy, but it works for a while.  It shuts people up.********

The saddest part of all this is that I believe that our collective comfort with the insanity we know will probably overcome any other kind of discussion.  We could make meaningful attempts to address our lack of compassion, our stinginess, our fear–all the things that contribute to a tragedy like Newtown.  I, for one, will try to do a better job of teaching my kids gratitude and empathy (first by modeling it).  I will make my vote count and my voice heard on issues of gun control and health care reform.  That’s what I can do on my little patch.  It is my sober response. 

 

‘Tis the season… AGAIN.  My expectations of the holidays this year were really high. (Uh oh.)  I confess that I  gazed with longing at the Christmas crud stashed in our garage when I was doing some summer cleaning in June.  Not even kidding.  Visions of sugar plums?  You betcha.

But, it’s all come to a flaming, fizzling heap:  picture Clark Griswold’s immolated Christmas Imagetree, only not so funny.  My alcoholic brother–who says he’s not an alcoholic–has been drying out at our mother’s since September like a fig that got left out of the pudding.  After a year and half of his erratic behavior (note the euphemism), my partner and I let him know that, without his acknowledgment of the disease and an effort to be honest about what it’s doing to him and to our family, we just can’t move forward with a relationship.  Now, dear ma-mah has determined that it’s not really his alcoholism that’s causing all his problems (it’s his Type 1 diabetes, says she), and all this squabbling between siblings is BEYOND inconvenient at the holidays.  The villain in this piece is me, by the way.

In addition to playing Grinch in the extended family’s Christmas pageant, I get to play Bob Cratchit at home with partner and kids.  A lampoon.eddiecontract I’d been depending on to pay for Christmas didn’t come through, and now there is LITERALLY no money for presents.  Maybe less like Mr. Cratchit, then, and more like the aforementioned Mr. Griswold.  Oh if ONLY I had a redneck cousin Eddie who could kidnap the nefarious spoiler of my generous plans to lavish gifts upon my family!

 

Leave it to this ungrateful alcoholic to think she’s the only girl in Santa’s lap.

It’s my expectations, of course, ruining the season.  Not my mother or brother or even the faceless bureaucrat who canceled my contract work.  The problems I have today would seem unfathomably simple to the woman who started this blog two years ago.  It is as if, now that I have a tiny bit of sobriety under my belt, I feel I’m “entitled” to expectations–that all that stuff about not having any, or having very few, is for people who don’t have anything at all (like I was, two years ago). But now, look at me!  Good job, repaired relationships, a foundation in recovery…. Surely an expectation or three at CHRISTMAS is acceptable?  It’s Christmas for Christ’s sake!

As it turns out… this not having expectations thing applies to me too.  And the rule doesn’t Imagetake a holiday break.  So, the only thing left to do is the NEXT RIGHT THING.

And here are a few of Next Right Things…. (You can sing it…)

1.  Be grateful for my ridiculously blessed first world problems.

2.  Remember that my best memories of the holidays were squinting at the tree and waking up cold in the morning and playing croquet in the snow–not of the presents or the perfect dinner or even the fact that everyone got along.

3.  Stick out an olive branch to my brother.  Apparently, he went to a meeting.  It’s not up to me to judge what that means, but it is up to me to say that if he’s willing, lines of communication are open.

4.  Go help my aunt, who lost her husband last month, clean out her house.  Now that the contract is in the waste can, I have TIME to do more of the next right things… write cards…spend more time with my partner and kids.  Sometimes I hide behind work.  Maybe the universe is trying to tell me something.

The moral of this Christmas play?

Expectatiions.  Duh. 

Why Giving Advice to Your Younger Self Is Dumb

Posted: November 11, 2012 in Uncategorized

I obsess about time.  (I’m not alone: “time” is the most used noun in the English language.)  Time in general, but mostly MY time–the short span of the earth’s revolutions while I’m still breathing on it  My recovery work lately is about trying to stop myself from mentally checking my “progress” against the arbitrary age clock set by our culture and our peers. 

Somehow, I’m disappointed to find that I have not been as successful as Savannah Guthrie, even though I don’t like Savannah Guthrie and actually know nothing about her.  But I’ll see her D.O.B. in a news article and do an automatic check against my own.  Unsurprisingly, I come up short when I measure myself against celebrities.  It irritates me that two of my bosses at work are younger than me.  I frequently feel unsuccessful and “behind”–nothing new in my alcoholic life, except that I don’t have my liquid time machine to help me forget the winged chariot and its habit of reminding me that it’s not just death hurrying near me, but the reckoning that comes with it.  I’m quite convinced I won’t measure up then, as I continually fail to do now.

I also have the bad habit of imagining going back in time to my younger self and giving her some well-meaning advice.  Things having been what they’ve been, she clearly could have used a piece of my mind!   I’d make my point about the booze VERY clear, for one.  For another, I’d recommend she break up with that college girlfriend before her sophomore year.   ….THAT would solve some problems….  A different grad school might have been a good idea as would more regular dental check ups.  I’d let her know that the grass isn’t really greener on the other side; it’s just more grass.  And I’d tell her that all the good things she believes about herself are definitely true.  Half of the bad stuff is as well, but not nearly as bad as she thinks, and the other half is just shit she picked up in school or from her Dad.

By the time I’m finished setting my agenda for Building a Better Me by Bending Time and Space, I recognize one very simple fact:  there’s no way I would listen to me.  I know me, and I know I think I know it all already, and there’s no way I’m listening to a Future Me who probably fucked up my life anyway.  I would know that I could do a better job than me with all this “life choices” stuff, so I should just shut the hell up.

So, there this unproductive fantasy typically ends:  with my recognizing that there is no Flux Capacitor powerful enough to change my past, or at least my personality.

This fantasy is a little unusual, just because it’s not the way I usually fantasize about the past at all.  I’m talking history history, not personal history.   You know the old party games… if you could have coffee with anyone from 19th century France, who would it be?  If you could live in any other decade, when and where would it be?  What moment in history would you most want to visit and why?  I never find myself wanting to pull an armchair up to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and say, “I’m not trying to tell you what to do, but…”  I’ve never wanted to skip back in time to Nazi rally and assassinate Adolf Hitler or to Ronald Reagan’s staff room in order to convince him to start fighting AIDS in the early ’80’s.  Not really.  When I do fantasize about time travel, my motive is always curiosity.  What was it REALLY like to listen to Virginia Woolf chat idly with Katherine Mansfield?  What WERE those druids up to with that whole Stonehenge thing?  And what do dinosaurs smell like?  I only want to learn, to know, to understand.  I have never genuinely wanted to change any past except my own, and I’m reasonably sure I’m not unique in that respect–action adventure villains and comic heroes always excepted.

I don’t have fantasies about changing major historical events–presumably–because I’ve managed to be just fine with the way history has led to the present–the generic, historical present–in which I live.  I must also be comfortable with having the (admittedly limited) power of changing only the present and helping to shape the future.  Somehow, these things are okay when it comes to a collective past.  I just can’t seem to adopt the same stoic attitude to my own, personal history.

I also don’t seem as concerned about any “butterfly effect” about changing details of my own life, perhaps because I DON’T feel that I’ve done much–good or bad–that would dramatically change things one way or another.  Another sad truth is that, when I am deep in this fantasy, I think that almost any change would end in a better “me” than what I’ve managed to do so far.  This is not just sad; it’s not even true. 

I am trying,, therefore, to re-think this “younger self” fantasy.  Maybe what I should really do is to go back and listen, rather than talk.  Understand, rather than try to change.  She could probably teach me a lot of things.  One of the lessons of recovery has been that I often feel I am trying to get “back” some things about myself that addiction and other maladaptive behaviors have taken away from me.  At the very least, she (younger self) deserves a lot of respect.  She survived; she did the best she could with what she had.
  She even developed some skills and knowledge and refinement along the way.  Everything she did led to now, and now’s pretty good.  Now’s great most of the time–so, she must have done an ok job.  And I should really let her (and me) off the hook. 

I am a long way from embracing my past, but I am farther along than before on the path of accepting it.  If Younger Self really insisted on advice, here’s all she’d get from me now:

1.  Take more pictures.  I sometimes forget what people looked like and how pretty everything was.

2.  Write more stuff down.  I don’t always remember what it felt like or what I thought or what things meant at the time they meant so much.

and 3.  Go ahead and do what you’re going to do.  If you don’t make the mistakes now, I’ll just have to make them later.

And that’s good advice. 

 

So, We Buried My Uncle Today

Posted: November 1, 2012 in Uncategorized

Let’s make it Kafkaesque and call him K.  Uncle K.  Uncle K died on Sunday and we put him in the ground today.  The middle brother of three brothers, Uncle K.  Big brother was my Dad; little brother (now big) is the last living of the three.  Of the three, Uncle K was the only one to have gotten a reprieve from the family disease.  Only Uncle K and only for a few years.

Big brother, my Daddy Dearest, crawled from the bottle to the grave at the age of 55, some ten years ago.  I was angry and bitter at the time and, having spent a few years before his death occasionally drinking “at” him, did not pause breath just because his own lungs had stopped.  Meanwhile, Uncle K. had gotten sober, had been sober for several years, by the time my father was being serially hospitalized for alcohol-related illnesses.  I was bitter about that too–not the illnesses, but K’s sobriety.  Why him and not my old man?  (It had not yet occurred to me to ask, “why him and not me?”).

I don’t know exactly when K. started drinking again.  Some years ago.  Maybe six.  Maybe a little less.  I have often blamed in part my other uncle–baby brother–for this, though this is probably very unfair  Baby Uncle likes to have people drinking with him.  I have seen him insist on it, even with guests who abstain for stated religious reasons. He starts his carouses early with wine at lunch and knocks off an aperitif or three later in the day.  Wine with dinner.  Digestif or night cap, bien sur.   Expensive, elegant.  Easily mistaken for a well-bred fetish.  Nothing so vulgar as a drinking problem.  Nothing he doesn’t have under control.  

I can imagine the scene with abstemious Uncle K. too well.  Just a glass with dinner. No, you really must try this new Malbec…  This is a fantastic blend, honestly.  You don’t know what you’re missing, especially paired with the meat. And there it went.  Or maybe “it” went nothing like that.  It is easier to blame Baby Uncle than it is to blame the disease–that ghoulish thing that murdered Father Dearest as absurdly as any B-movie monster.  And as unbelievable.

I don’t talk to Baby Uncle anymore.  He’s over-shared one too many of his unwelcome opinions while in his cups.  (This may account for my uncharitable willingness to cast him as villain in Uncle K’s relapse.) At the hands of my father, I endured similarly whiskey-lubricated abuse.  As an adult, I no longer have to suffer it.

I’m also barely on speaking terms with my brother, who has spent the last eighteen months declaring on-and-off again that he’s not an alcoholic.  When he does admit it, he clarifies that he’s the kind of alcoholic who does not need help with his problem.  After every family gathering was canceled or made unbearable because of his drinking, my partner and I made the hard decision to tell him that, until he was getting help, he couldn’t really be a part of our lives.  (Letting go with love, as we learned in Al-Anon, doesn’t mean that a new set of Awkward doesn’t spring up in the place of the old.  Just means it doesn’t make us feel crazy and defeated anymore.)

Of the ten people who constituted that part of the extended family for the last 30 years, five are certainly alcoholics.  Two of the alcoholics are dead now (Daddy and Uncle K).  We lost my grandmother three years ago.  So, there are seven of us left; three remaining alkies. including Yours Truly.  At any one time, only one of us has ever been in recovery.  The relationships–if they can be said to exist–are a little jittery, a little unreliable. 

The source of my real grief is all of the above, not just Uncle K’s early bucket-kicking, which would knock out a few molars just on its own.

Uncle K., by the way, didn’t die of his wounds–as it were–but something weird and medical and depressing, something to do with his intestines and a botched surgery and other things that make about as much sense as the rest of the dysfunction.  But the booze didn’t get him, or at least not in any way an autopsy could immediately prove. Still, during the last two years since my sobriety, it broke my heart to see him drunk at Christmases again.  Broke my heart all over again to know he died with the obsession in tact, when he had known freedom. (For a time, I had harbored fantasies of us all getting sober and talking recovery over tonic waters and coffee.)

He was youngish, my uncle.  The doctors and nurses barely had explanations for the “complications” that were killing him.  All we knew was that, each week, it seemed like there was a new one.  From my medically-challenged point of view, it seemed simply that a rot had set in, had festered, and was now just out of control. 

****

I don’t normally report ‘from the ground’ like this.  I try to stay in the solution, for myself and for anyone who bothers to read this damned thing.  Today, I have only observations about what this disease does to families–how it’s a disease of ‘complications,’ like whatever it was that finally killed Uncle K.  A funeral for such a family is not about acknowledging one loss, but many.  Living losses too. 

So, today a grieved for all the brothers–the living and the dead.  For my brother, barely living.  For me, learning with painful first steps how to walk out of the charnel house.  And for the walking wounded that make up the rest of the family–who, perhaps, continue to wonder blindly why the hemorrhages keep coming and from where.  it is not about the grief of one funeral, but the grief of recognizing that, without having realized it, you’ve been living in the funeral parlor.

 

 

It is not really possible to conceive (of) death.  Milton tried, of course, and pretty graphically.  In Paradise Lost, Satan first “conceives” Sin in Heaven, as he’s contemplating rebellion against God.  Sin is a sexy, slip of a non-angelic being who bears a striking resemblance to Satan.  How could he resist?  The offspring of their incestuous union, Death, springs out of Sin’s fateful loins sometime just after the war in Heaven.  Truly an ingrate, Death immediately rapes his mother, and then a lot of other unpleasant things begin.

Allegory was never really my thing, and I’ve always thought it was a theological (though not a poetic) misstep in Milton’s theodicy.  Allegory intellectualizes.  It removes.  We’re not thinking of Granddad on the slab when we encounter Milton’s Death.  If attentive, I think about the grand logics of causal effects and the poet’s lock-step familiarity with the spiritual “truth” of biblical truth:  the intimacy of sin and death.  If churlish, I think of B-movies and marvel a little at the self-indulgent grotesquery of it all.  Well, the point is I’m not really thinking about it at all—not death as experience.  It’s not a feint exactly, but it is a removal.

Writing about the Holocaust, Maurice Blanchot says,

The disaster ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact.  It does not touch anyone in particular; “I” am not threatened by it, but spared, left aside. 

….

When the disaster comes upon us, it does not come. 

And this is abstraction, but somehow nearer a truth about death than Milton’s allegory.  Camus would have agreed:  we cannot experience death; no one has, nor will anyone.  You could say that death is the ultimate abstraction that will level all the empirical minutiae.  Maybe envisioning death as a giant, perverted monster personifies not death itself but our cartoonish removal from its reality.  Why not give it horns and fangs?    It’s as accurate as anything else.

 In the last years and months of my drinking, I felt death was very imminent.  It was not only that, like many alcoholics toward the ends of their addictions, I contemplated suicide—although I do recall planning it out.  A gun, it seemed to me, would be preferable: and there were moments I would happily have pulled the trigger, but the task of obtaining one just seemed beyond my capacity.  (This alone might suffice as an argument against personal gun ownership.)   Next was pills, but I did not know how to get those either, not “good” ones anyway.  Exhaust fumes could work, but I was reasonably convinced I’d chicken out after a few minutes.  Luckily for me, the inertia that marked every other part of my drinking life made the effort of suicide a near-impossibility.

What I mean is that I felt my death very near, physically.  I had a quite rational horror of falling in the shower or down the stairs.  (And I have since known women and men whose drunken household accidents led them to AA or WFS.)  My liver ached daily—a hot, throbbing pressure under my right rib cage or what some describe as a “burning.”  I habitually squeezed at the lowest rib bone, pinching it with thumb and forefinger to try to get relief from the pressure.  Oddly, I still do this when I feel anxious—a little “hangover” from the near tragedy of that recent past.  Perhaps the worst feeling was the heavy, woolen irritation my brain would give me.  I could feel it swelling, panting there inside my skull.  And I would reflect grimly on the numbers of brain cells I was obliterating and on the certain effects of toxic encephalopathy (what amateurs call “wet brain”).

Oh, I knew all about the blood-brain barrier and about cirrhotic livers, about alcoholic heart disease and the higher incidence of breast cancer, about violent death statistics and the depressive tendency toward suicide.  Enough to be dangerous, but not enough, ever, to get sober for these reasons.

Why wasn’t the threat of death enough?

 Last week, my family and I learned that an old friend of ours had been murdered along with her mother at the hands of her new husband.  He’d attacked and raped her daughter after showing the girl the bodies of her relatives.  She survived, somehow.  A blessedly short manhunt led to his arrest.  The girl is being cared for (we think) by an aunt.  The murderer is in prison where he will presumably molder for the rest of his life.

We found out about this through, of all places, Facebook.  (I say “of all places,” but my guess is that if you are under 45 and you learned of an illness or death among your friendship circle, you had a 50/50 chance of finding out via Facebook or text message.)  The bodies of my old friend and her very sweet mother had not been dead 24 hours before some teenager had posted a grotesquely up-beat collage of photos of the family with sentiments like “R.I.P.” and “We miss you!” scrawled over their faces in a pink, comic sans font.  If it had been a joke, it would have been obscene.  Because it was not, it seemed to me all the more obscene.

But why?   Just my bourgeois taste being offended, I suppose.  It’s not the kind of remembrance that I’d want.  This says something about my priorities, since I’d been willing to be found full of vodka, slumped unheroically over my Toyota’s steering wheel.

As the days have passed, the deaths of my friends and this young woman’s trauma don’t get any more real.  Or, should I say, “realistic.”  My partner was interviewed by a t.v. local news reporter because we were some of the few friends who’d known the family when they’d lived in our city.  I follow news reports from West Virginia to see if new details have emerged, which makes me feel distant and stupid.  Each day, I read the “status updates” from my friend’s daughter in that sophomoric medium.  She has no other outlet, I suppose.  And it is not her fault—I go a little further—that it’s de rigeur to publish the adolescent thoughts that in my generation we kept to ourselves or forced between the pages of diaries we later cringed to read.  Why should I cringe for her when I  read,  “Getting ready then heading to funeral” and then a day or so later, “Found out have to go back to public school next year :/ “.  But I do.  And can’t help thinkin that if, as Shakespeare said, “silence is the perfectest herald of happiness,” then surely it acts all the more perfectly for grief?

I am embarrassed by these things—by the failure of this tragedy to be presented and handled as a tragedy in the classical sense—because the failure so accurately reveals the absurdity, the incomprehensibility of death.  If the news anchors and well-meaning friends and even the survivor herself cannot help mocking (however unconsciously) the traditional pageantry of grief, is it not because those trappings and gestures are themselves bankrupt and have no hope of approaching (let alone containing) the experience of death.  Why not be absurd and superficial in the face of the incomprehensible?  Surely, this response is as valid as any Puritanical funeral rite.

 The families and friends of addicts often wonder why the threat of death—even one that seems quite imminent—is not enough to dissuade us from getting help, “cleaning up our acts,” or otherwise “quitting.”  I remember feeling that way about my father, when he was swaying in the slow, suicidal tango of his own alcoholism.  But this was because I clung mystically to a potent, tragic eschatology that says death is absolute and knowable.  In my own addiction, I had to learn that, because it is absolute, death is unknowable, and the unknowable is always absurd, and even comic.  It is always the cartoon monster, always Wile E. Coyote groaning under the endlessly repeated rock.  It’s the zither and the xylophone, not Mozart’s Requiem.

It was life that was frightening—the known, terrible grinding of that worse-than-soap-operatic script.

In recovery, we move back from that ultimate vanishing point, death.  More accurately, we take our eyes from it.  We begin to take in the rest of the scenery.  And when we do, returning to the land of the “living,” we are graced again with the ability to take death seriously, because we can see it as the antithesis of life, the end to the fantastic mummery in which we’ve finally begun to take part.  It’s a strange amnesia, and a bargain too.  The price of life is merely the repression of death’s incomprehensibility.  That’s not so bad.  It’s why we grin at Dickinson’s paradox, “Because I could not stop for Death/ He kindly stopped for me.”  There is no “place” in which both of these things could be simultaneously true.  And most of us don’t think too hard about that.

Those who croak too loudly about death—who use it as the scourge to whip the unrecovered toward the light—remind me of Coleridge’s mariner, creepily grabbing the wedding guest’s arm, resolved to inflict his allegory on the unsuspecting.  I have the vivid memory of my students’ dull, unmoved expressions to know how delighted most people are to hear this story.  Death—incomprehensible and absurd, as we have come to know it in our addiction—is no deterrent FROM addiction.  And now that I have ceased to live with my eye on that dark horizon, I can no longer speak of it with any intimacy.  But to pretend to is worse, much worse, because it gives the lie that death can be known and experienced.  The ancient mariner is terrifying because we can all become that:  pathetic preachers who sell only the fear of death.

Much better, it seems to me, to admit that we cannot return and do not wish to return to that space.  For me, it was not a delusion.  I believe I may have come very close to understanding death as that which is utterly incommensurate during those awful days.  It does not follow that that knowledge is edifying or valuable.  The truth doesn’t always set you free.