“When you’re getting better, it’s a jagged line.” -Jenny Lewis
Maybe it’s just what happens in your mid twenties, but shit, I highly doubt it – there was this black jumprope I had tangled up with the wires of an old Nintendo 64 shoved deep into my closet, and for a year I imagined it wrapped round my neck, squeezing the life out of me. See, I sort of wanted to die.
Let’s back up, though, and let’s get clear. I didn’t completely want to die, I actually mostly wanted to live, but I had no idea how to live and I was stuffed to the gills with suffering. Mind you, this was in “sobriety.” I had a couple years clean, I hadn’t put any drugs or alcohol into my system, but I was dirty as hell, infected in my mind with that deep dark deluded thought process that drives so many of us back to addiction and, tragically, sometimes suicide.
Yeah, I had work to do. They don’t give you maps for this.
That was eight years ago. And instead of coiling that jumprope round my delicate neck, I relapsed, and I let my life crumble, and then I crawled back through the rubble to start again. Sometimes you have to burn it all to the ground to start over.
I used to think that if I could spend my life hooked up to a machine that numbs me out or gets me high and glittering, I would gladly do it. I always wanted to be so close to death, so blacked out and obliterated and viscerally leveled but awake enough to feel it – to feel nothing and everything delicious all at once. From the time I was fourteen years old and got trashed on keg beer and puffs from a joint, that was all I wanted and all I cared to do. It felt like God to me, like some spiritual reverie, to ride the wave above the cloying angst and feel connected and up up up, to transcend the earthbound realm. Dissolving the layers of me that were angry and heartbroken (and by fourteen I was pretty angry and heartbroken) with something as simple as liquid and plant and tablets of talc – it was as if I had found the Holy Grail, got a golden ticket, held the magic key to unlock the vault and step outside of myself. Oh, how I had found a miracle to cure me!
But it was a lie, a sleight of hand – the emperor wore no clothes. By sixteen, I was fairly certain I had crossed that invisible line; it wasn’t hell yet, but it was bad enough and getting badder – I just intuitively knew. I was a blackout drinker and I drank alone, and I shoveled pills into me, and the whole world scared me, and I was already trying to control it all. I didn’t quite enter recovery then, but I knew – something is really wrong. Something is really wrong with the way I drink, and even then I knew, with the way I think. Why was I so paranoid, anxious, depressed – “chemical imbalance?” that’s all you’ve got? But I never said a word to anyone about how I really felt, I said what I was supposed to say. Everything’s fine! Where I had learned such a strong game of pretend? I was a champion of shining it on.
I went to college for one semester, straight out of high school and without a clue, and it’s still almost too painful to talk about, write about, revisit. But you know, sometimes you have to burn it all to the ground to start over. (I’m a phoenix rising type of kid, and I like to repeat myself.) I still will never reconcile the leap from seventeen to eighteen, the summer after high school, the transition into another world. It was the final surrender of childhood, and it still breaks my heart, and if I think about it too much, I either can’t remember or else I cannot bear the loss. I do not understand it. I hope someday I do. Sometimes we have to just accept the broken pieces of our hearts. Isn’t that where the light gets in, or something like that?
By nineteen I’d done a few months at a rehab in Orange County, and at twenty-one I relapsed after a year and a half sober, and then I did that again at twenty-five, after almost three years sober. I had settled into a pattern. Get a little time clean and do it all “right,” don’t you know, be a good AA kid, get the boyfriend who becomes your life, get good grades, get cute clothes, enter the gates of eating disorders, insomnia, depression, chronic pain. And this was how it went in my early twenties, because it’s just how it went, because I had zero clue how to be vulnerable, and in fact, I didn’t know that I wasn’t being vulnerable, wasn’t really feeling, was still just running, still refused help and wouldn’t be caught dead asking for it, hid in the toxic relationship, with my head in the toilet, in the thinking I had felt the wounds and forgiven my parents and childhood, all the ways I had to be brave and take care of myself when someone should have been taking care of me; the wounds hadn’t healed, they were just scarred over, puffy and tender, and by the time I was twenty-five I couldn’t stop thinking about that goddamn jumprope.
But: some tiny needlepoint size glimmer of hope, faith, god, whatever was inside of me as I stood on the back porch at my mom’s house smoking a Parliament, wondering, where am I headed, and how in the holy fuck am I going to do this? I had a forty a day Norco habit and got drunk every night and snorted coke and slept with strangers and drove hammered and reckless, and I was bulimic and had chronic pain and was deeply depressed and full of rage and in my second year of graduate school, and I could see myself in my mind’s eye bound up in a wooden box held tight with thick ropes and how do we get ourselves out of a mess like that? But there was the tiny needlepoint size glimmer, in my heart or chest, and it was whispering, you can do this. And I knew: I can do this.
I am six and a half years sober today, and I got myself out of that box. Pure magic. What a mess it has been. What messes I have continued to make, mere mortal; mapless and lost, but subtly aware of some quiet internal guide. And oh heavens, the ways I have transformed and grown, it’s deep in me, the gratitude and weight of it all, the way I fell in love with myself finally and learned to tend to my wounds with gentleness, and learned to be forgiving. The tears come, the ease of feeling, because I’m just not so afraid, and I can rest in the reflection of how I was dying and then came to live again, triumphant.
In my first couple of years sober, this go around, which I consider the real go around, the big shift, the final rising, it was a brutal sort of wake up. I started to feel for the first time in my life, and it was a seemingly endless stretch of rage and fear. I swear it took me nine months to even take a real deep breath, and then, to weep. Grace swooped in and took all my old coping mechanisms, the boyfriend, the dieting, the bulimia, the thin chase, the distract distract distraction game that prevented me from feeling. All that was lifted, and I was left with me, and I started to look at God. What the hell is It/Him/Her? I got interested in all of that. It saved my life and let me transform it. I could sit on a cushion on the floor for two minutes before I wanted to claw my own eyes out. Then three, and on. I was back in twelve step programs and meetings, and I went to small ones with women and felt disconnected and apart from and hated everyone until I started to love them. Until I started to connect. And tell the truth. And rage. And weep. My heart would thump in me like a mallet, and my skin would flush and that tiny needlepoint glimmer started growing. And I kept going.
I had a party to celebrate one year sober with at least twelve fellow sober women. Me! And at a year and a half, I had to get more help, because I didn’t know how to keep living sober and I couldn’t forgive and I couldn’t say no and I had no sense of self. I kept searching, and I found. I began to really rebuild my insides. I also read hundreds of books.
And then something burst, and I could tell I had killed whatever black oily snake was inside of me, trying to choke me from within, like the black jumprope I imagined could choke me on the outside – I had broken free, and I knew there was a force taking care of me, that there wasn’t actually anything to fear, that I was lovable and precious and so brave, and that I could still keep going, though I had no idea where I was going. The toxic goop of hate and anger loosened and let go and started to leave me, and I will never forget the first time I felt the cleanness of my insides, I felt like a waterfall, like the freshest air, and there was love in me exploding. That was around year three. I knew I was getting better, and that I was wandering about and expanding in, as Rilke said, widening rings. There was largeness in me.
I never thought about drinking or getting high. I wanted to be sober. But cleaning up the eating disorders and distorted body image house of mirrors, shaking those monkeys off my back, took years. And how could it not? Like love and sex, it’s primal and of our very essence to eat, to be in our bodies, it’s deep in the guts and bones and skin, and it’s a rocky terrain, climbing through all that. And yet: another miracle. Though the bulimia and intense bingeing cleaned up pretty early on, I still had so many issues around dieting and overeating, weird rules and restrictions lodged in my brain and other strange compulsions with food, but around four years of sobriety, because of whatever the hell I was doing to get better, all of it and none of it, it all softened. One day I woke up and there was no trouble. There was just no more trouble. None. And sure, like how nothing is static, old mean voices can rear their monstrous heads sometimes, and old diet tapes can try to get on the shuffle, and I let ’em roar and let them play a minute but then switch over, because mostly I fell in love with my body and mostly food is fine, and I don’t really care about it. I laugh to myself often – I learned I was so not a foodie when I let myself eat.
And then the boys. (I’ve yet to date a man.) The narcissists and codependents and cheaters and love avoidants, emotionally unavailable and mirroring back the oldest belief, that I am unlovable and ugly and average, I have said goodbye to so much of that; and even though every inch of my body wants to run into the arms of a guy who won’t ask me to be vulnerable and open, who’ll just get me high and make me feel young and reckless, who will hurt me so I can say, see?, I don’t run into their arms. I don’t stay with them anymore. The last one, a true blue narcissist, I was out the door and slammed it shut at six weeks. In my early twenties I spent three years with a liar. Progress. Because I love myself today, and the core of me just cannot stand the way I feel around disguised wolves, who don’t respect and understand the depth and sensitivity of a woman. I try then, to keep knowing women and loving women and knowing men and loving men, and going where the love is and letting myself be loved, because sometimes it’s me who shuts down or wears a mask. I keep learning and stretching on my toes to glimpse the horizon.
And all of that space, all of this space that I have now, from drugs, from food, from mean boys and denied resentment, from obsession and self-hatred, allowed me time with myself. With my precious self. To sit and write and read and feel and befriend this kid in me that has always been in me, and shake her hand and say, I’m not leaving. And then I could move out into the world. I can go out into the world, without armor, and try to do what I think it is that we’re meant to do – to make a connection, amend the suffering, tell the truth.
I do not always feel happy and I do not always feel safe – there are remnants of childhood that still stick to me or took pieces out of me, and maybe that’s just being alive, being a human – but I often feel happy and I often feel safe, and nothing outside is creating it, it’s inherent and deep. It’s the tiny needlepoint that grew and grew and embodied all of me, the undeniable truth that I am being carried and cradled and that even when I screw up and hurt someone or get hurt, or get scared or worried, or so very angry or so very selfish, I’m still lovable, still forgiven, still safe.
Recovery doesn’t look like any one thing, I don’t think. It’s different for all of us, why we choose the sober path, the feeling path, the attempts at authenticity and vulnerability, and why we stick to it when we certainly have the choice to fall back. It’s because it cracks you open, it lets you stretch your arms and legs and heart, and it lets you inside of yourself again, and again, and again, and it lets you put your feet up, leave the dishes out, make a mess, laugh at the absurdity of it all. It lets you be, and it loves you anyway or simply because – it gives you yourself back or for the first time maybe, and says, chin up, go exploring.