That Gratitude List
From almost the start, when I poured that last screwdriver down the sink, I’ve had this three-way tie for first place on my nightly gratitude list: HP— my sobriety—my sons.
All three, neck-in-neck as they cross that finish line: my beating heart.
Everything else—my health, my job, my home, the new Carvel on the corner—falls into place below, in no special order. I’m grateful for them ALL, but it’s this inseparable trio at the top, a loving G-d as I define G-d, my temperance for today, and my two male adolescents, that I claim most dear. For this three-in-one holy trinity, holding hands around my life today, I thank my lucky stars, stars that twinkle high above city lights, often unseen, but always there…
However, since last summer, there’s more to this nightly accounting of my blessings. In bed, as I note my appreciation of the three frontrunners, I also now acknowledge their tenuous nature, and in doing so, value them even more. Something scary happened last July that sank down deep into the stretched-skin of my mommy belly: Holy s---, this sobriety thing is NOT a given. I realized I could lose all three: my faith could fail me, I could pick up, and… (no sorry, can’t go there, I refuse to picture a kid getting hurt, not mine nor anyone else’s).
The Family Reunion
It wasn’t the kind of family reunion with monogrammed Oriental Trading ball caps, and fifth cousins flown in from far corners. Just the immediate family, and cousin Nancy from Missouri, gathered for the fourth, on the family “farm”, a former dairy, where livestock had been replaced with wildlife. Herds of deer, and wild turkey now roamed Four Fields Farm in exurbia New York. Due to a chlorine-resistant algae bloom, the pool wasn’t even open.
“A Family Disease?”
While I don’t point fingers, and respect that alcoholism is a self-diagnosed disease, I have sometimes wondered about the drinking habits of those ancestors dangling from my paternal branch. Great Uncle Gray, the family acknowledges, was the town drunk of Coleman, Texas. My biological grandfather, Howard, was his running buddy, though no one has ever labeled my granddad an alcoholic too. I’ve had my doubts about Gray’s sister though, my beloved, eccentric Great Aunt Honey, (nee Vivian), a former beauty queen with a penchant for leopard print, a framed portrait of her Pekinese, and strange curios from trips to Mexico with her heavy-drinking lover Frank. I don’t ever remember visiting Honey when she was not in her brass bed, propped with pillows, her red wig askew, animated, eating coconut cake. Was that coffee she drank or something else? I really don’t remember. But pictures don’t lie. I cherish a polaroid of her, in a lawn chair, with shades and red lipstick, and a tallboy resting on crossed knees above showgirl legs. The jury’s out on Great Aunt Honey.
But really, I don’t have to go farther up the family tree than the next leaf on my own branchlet, to find genetic evidence that alcoholism runs in the family. My brother, approaching 33 years of continuous sobriety is—on a cellular level—the closest person on the planet to me, and he, like me, is powerless over alcohol. My sober sibling had been proof enough for me.
The Fireworks Get out of Hand
Until two days after Independence Day, 2018, that was. Walking the gravel path from house to road with my beautiful cousin, a vision in flowing linen and towering six inches above me, fields of ripening hay for fodder on either side of us, I broke my anonymity: “I don’t drink you know.” “Oh,” she replied, “I guess I didn’t know that.” She was surprised. Everyone is. I don’t fit their profile. Whatever that is, it’s not a middle-aged mom who car pools kids to chess tournaments. Then she added: “There have been times when I drank a little more heavily… when I was going through stuff… But I don’t drink much now.”
And that’s all it took to flambe the low flame under my denial and reignite DOUBT.
Was it really that bad, I asked myself. Maybe I was just going through stuff too…I mean, everyone hits those keg parties hard in college, that’s normal... And after graduation, when I spent my entire twenties producing a low-budget feature film flop, I reasoned: Hell, a decade of indy filmmaking would drive anyone to drink! Everyone blacks out at post-screening parties and does stupid shit. Maybe, if I’d just let my drinking run its course I would have—like Cousin Nancy—gotten to the point where I was bored with bottom shelf whiskey and bad chianti with screw top caps. I would have gotten fed up fanangling illicit refills of prescription muscle relaxants…Maybe I’d beat the odds, learn to moderate, and wind up pretty much be where I am today, with the blessed life I have.”
Of course the sober, grounded me knows that my drinking is not conditional; it’s not based on stuff going on in my life, not the low times nor the high. I know this. I know that I’ve got a life-threatening disease that’s arrested one-day-at-a-time, and is contingent upon my fit spiritual condition. This is my truth. But in that moment, I forgot it all. I forgot the scary. Like the scary, and deeply sad boyfriend from Lawrence, Kansas, a pale rail who, at 6’6”, ducked when he boarded subway cars and subsisted on quarts of Budweiser and Winston Gold. (He’s gone now, that sad, scary boyfriend.) Or the scary scrapes I’d survived, like staggering home alone, over the Brooklyn Bridge, at 3AM, a young woman in a red halter dress, heels in hand, because I couldn’t find a friend to join me in my mid-week drinking adventure. Because I’d spent the 20 bucks that I’d stashed in my bra for cab fare home, on whiskey sours instead. In this magical moment approaching dusk with Cousin Nancy, her smile as wide as a Texas sky, I completely forgot that, when I crossed that bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn, I crossed another line, or as it’s described in Alcoholics Anonymous, Chapter 2: “There is a Solution”: I “lost the power of choice in drink.”
I continued to rationalize: That was 30 years ago; it’s all water under the bridge now. Then this fart bubble of an idea popped to mind, as dumb as adding “an ounce of whiskey in my milk”: Why can’t I enjoy one scotch on the patio with Cousin Nancy and Dad this evening? You know, rock back, reminisce and tinkle my ice cubes in a tumbler with “N” for our surname, etched on its surface…. To hell with the swimming pool, now THIS is a family reunion!
In the first paragraph of Chapter 3: “More About Alcoholism” I have the following lines double highlighted in yellow and pink, then also underlined: “The idea that somehow, someday he will control and enjoy his drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal drinker The persistence of this illusion is astonishing. Many pursue it into the gates of insanity or death.” Oh and “illusion” is also circled.
There Is A Solution in the Onion Fields
The fields of hay shimmered in the mid-summer summer light. It was a Kodak moment, yet I felt unsafe. So what did I do in this moment when the bottom of my sobriety fell out? When my phone and my brother were back at the house, and I couldn’t reach my sponsor or any sober gal pal? Thankfully, I remembered what Lisa M., the sponsor who’d led me through this close reading of the Big Book told me early on: “Start cultivating your relationship with your Higher Power Maria. People aren’t always available, but G-d is.” So I prayed to HP, actually first I cursed at G--d. Then I prayed for the urge to drink to pass. It wasn’t passing fast enough. I prayed to remember that I was an alcoholic who couldn’t drink safely. And I prayed to tolerate the discomfort until it passed.
Frankly I felt HP’s response was inadequate, given the circumstances. But then another thought followed. This one felt G-d-inspired, and smelled better. Oh that’s right, I’m going to a meeting tonight. Another sound suggestion from Lisa M. had been this: find a second home group when you’re away, visiting your second home. For me, it’s my parents’ house in the township of Warwick. They know me as the “holiday gal”, because I’m up there with my sons over most school holidays. Feels good to get to meetings up there, and to bump into friends of Bill in the village post office or coffee shop. Feels good, away from home, to still feel connected.
And this was just enough. I had a sober plan: to go to a meeting where I could spill. In ninety minutes I’d be sitting in the second seat of the second row of folding chairs, between ball caps and boots, in the spic-in-span basement of St. Stanislaus Church in Pine Island, New York, sipping percolator coffee, and nibbling an Oreo. In this white clapboard church surrounded by black dirt onion fields, the feelings would continue to pass through. Sooner or later the discomfort would lift. I had faith in this. A problem shared is a problem halved…
Mother’s Day, 2019
On the eve of another sober Mother’s Day, it’s still a photo finish for first place on my praise list: My Higher Power/My Sobriety/My Sons. But on that Friday night last July, the dark horse was that little Polish church that housed a Group Of Drunks. Those alcoholics listened to me and nodded in identification. I enjoyed my first deep breath in hours. I felt safe from that first drink, and all urge to jay walk or put my hand on a hot stove.
Soon after she returned home to Missouri, cousin Nancy was diagnosed with lung cancer. She passed over the winter holidays. The family was stunned, but Nancy flashed that smile to the end, and her own two sons rose to the occasion magnificently.
These final memories with my first cousin are on my list tonight too, those hours spent sitting poolside, laughing at the stagnant scene, and sipping my mother’s glorious sun tea, that quenches like nothing else.
Happy Mother’s Day!