April 4th 2010. Finally a warm spring day! I’m sick again, or rather still but intend to be outside as much as my weakened body will allow. Eric is outside and on the phone, as usual. I walk up to him and put my aching head on his chest. Eric always smells good to me, clean, natural like fresh tilled soil and salt. I rest listening to his heartbeat and phone conversation he puts his hand on my back. His hands are large and strong, like the rest of him. I love the feel of his hand on my back I feel protected and small. Eric has a dancer’s body, chiseled and muscular, broad shoulders, tapered waist. He seems to me to be a living paradox; the body of The David dressed in dirty farm clothes, and wearing a white scraggly beard. Sometimes I stare at him while he’s sleeping. I try to imagine what he looked like when he was younger, with more hair on his head and less on his face.
There is a fifteen year gap between us. From time to time, and lately more often than not those years seem like a bridge he long ago crossed. A bridge I am only contemplating crossing. The water between us in that gap is choppy, with gusty winds and sea devils which often make it impossible for me to hear what he is saying from the other side. He doesn’t hear what I am saying partly because of the conditions of the air and sea and partly because he has no need to look back over that bridge he traversed so long ago.
Eric is on the phone with a counselor from one of the many drug and alcohol rehabs who regularly call us looking to place one of their patients into group housing. Eric and I run a 12 step recovery house for women with substance abuse issues. More accurately, Eric owns and runs it I am sort of an “ornament” that gets paid. At least that’s how I feel. Especially when I am sick. Eric and I both are in recovery for our own torrid and dramatic past relationships with Alcohol. Eric has been sober for 20 years. I stopped drinking three years ago. For me, the sober part is just beginning.
After 30 years of drinking and the last 10 of them heavy daily drinking I’m finding that the dense fog that alcoholism left in its wake very slow to dissipate and lift while I struggle to piece together the shards of glass from my shattered life. I am only beginning to see glimpses of blue sky.
As the months and years roll by the shards of glass become more rounded and soft like the sea glass I used to collect at the beach when I was small. Those beautiful treasures from a North Carolina vacation lined my childhood bedroom window and when the light shined on them my walls were splashed with wondrous color and magical light. Some days sobriety feels like the memory of my childhood sea glass collection on a bright sunny day and sometimes the treasures are just cold dark stones sitting on a dusty windowsill waiting for a break in the clouds.
Waiting for Eric to get off the phone I need to sit down because I feel so weak. I have been sick it seems since the day I got sober! Before I put down the bottle I enjoyed robust health that I took for granted. Even my teeth were healthy, having only one cavity and that one not until my late 30’s. Sometimes I wonder if the alcohol was somehow fighting off disease as well as suppressing emotional pain. Even if it were keeping illness at bay the ironic twist would be that with the amounts I was consuming it would eventually poison my liver or probably before that happened it would cause me to wrap my car around a tree.
Since I’ve been sober my ailments have been numerous. I am currently recovering from a condition called Adenomyosis which is characterized by the presence of ectopic glandular tissue found in uterine muscle….blah, blah, blah it causes INTENSE pain and incessant menstruation resulting in severe anemia. Refusing to have the surgery my doctor insisted upon, I battled that disease for months. I tried acupuncture, herbs, vitamins, prayer and voodoo. Nothing worked. I had such a hard time letting go of my uterus, the womb that so flawlessly and lovingly housed each of my babies.
Being pregnant and giving birth seems like the only perfect thing I’ve ever done. That organ was sort of my identity and my power but I was too sick to hold onto it and had to let it go, finally accepting the need for surgery.
Eric got off the phone and informed me we will be interviewing yet another woman who wishes to become a house member next week. Her name is Abby.
Working with the women at the recovery house feels like a good fit for me. I never did and still don’t fit into the normal crowds; trying to align myself with the PTA, book clubs and the soccer mom clubs always makes me feel awkward and empty. Trying to measure up to what I hold as socially normal and desirable makes me feel like a bowl of fake fruit. The fruit looks perfect and appealing but there’s no juice. Working and communicating with women at the recovery house is real and often raw, there is sustenance here. Bruised and blemished myself I understand and fit right in with this pack. I can sink my teeth into this organic work and come away feeling nourished and fulfilled.
Since I’ve been sick I don’t punch that time clock at the recovery house with much regularity but when I do show up for work, I am fully present and committed to whatever “work” there is to do. It reminds me of when I worked as a doula and a midwife’s assistant.
When attending a birth I was able to be 100% committed to giving laboring mothers and babies all the love and knowledge I had. Helping them stay on their path reminding them of their desires while remaining unattached to the outcome.
When I enter the recovery house it’s often because of a call of distress. I approach the house with an open loving heart but protect myself with equally loving boundaries, nonattachment to the outcome. I answer a call to the house by first reminding myself of what it is like to be very newly sober. Suddenly giving up the drugs which are usually used to suppress intolerable emotional pain it feels as if someone is shining an integration spotlight in your face 24/7 after you’ve been in a dark cave or a coma for years and years. It’s a frightening place to be. There is often a panic similar to a drowning person trying to save themselves. If the lifeguard is not careful both the victim and the person who knows how to swim will drown. I have been “swimming” a bit longer than most of the women at the house but am not close to having my lifeguard certificate.
My role while attending births was not as a medical professional but rather a peer, I have simply been there. My role at the recovery house is the same. Similar to labor pains, the pain of becoming sober can seem as though it will last for an eternity. I know the labor pains and the pains of awakening from an alcohol induced stupor are temporary and my job while attending births and while assisting women in recovery is to remind them of the impermanence of any given situation. Nothing lasts forever, not even the things we want to last. “When we allow ourselves to surrender to the process, allow ourselves to go right where the pain is, face it and stop trying to hold it all in the throat or inside a clenched jaw, the pain, while still there becomes tolerable.” I have used these same words to guide both laboring moms and women struggling to become sober. Over and over I find it is necessary to experience that pain, go through it, in order to get deep down to the warm safe center, where the good stuff like an abundance of love and joy are just waiting to be unleashed, enjoyed and shared.
In my own labor experiences when I would surrender to the pain the door (my cervix in this case) would open up a little more becoming ever more ready to give birth. In between those intensely painful contractions there is a resting period where I could catch my breath, relax deeply, recharge and be ready to surrender to the wave of the next contraction, trusting my body and the process. So often my birthing clients, much like the recovery house women, will recklessly waste the precious moments in between contractions, or court dates to worry about the next contraction-the next court date. Getting caught up in worry and fear, not allowing your body and mind to pause and rest, frequently results in hasty decisions that lead to suffering.
For a laboring mom that can mean unwanted interventions and sometimes lingering health issues for mother and/or baby. For a woman in recovery, spending all their time in worry and fear, the emotional pain will come roaring in like an unstoppable flood. Shame, guilt and regret will take hold and the pain will become unbearable. Often the only obvious and immediate choice is to become numb.
Infrequently but sadly not all births have a happy outcome. And sadly the rate of successful continued sobriety for those in recovery is dismally low. In both good and bad birth outcomes often the most valuable skill I had to offer was simply listening. And so it is at the recovery house as well.
The evening of her scheduled interview Abby nervously sat amongst the crowd of misfits, with whom I felt completely at ease. She was sitting in a folding chair biting her nails as quiet chatter flowed on the back porch and the cigarette smoke hung like a low heavy cloud under the awning. The house members pulled heavily on their cigarettes before adhering to the “no smoking at meetings” rule that they always complained about. .
Abby was a thin wiry woman with gleaming black skin and would respond with “Yes, Suh,” or “Yes Ma’am.” Whenever she was spoken to.
“Abby, there’s no need for formalities here. You are interviewing to become part of a family not for a professional position.” We told her.
Abby was accepted into the house. There was a sweetness of spirit about her, a naive quality that made her very loveable, at least to me. But as I suspected Abby was difficult to live with. Only weeks after settling in to the house Abby’s behavior was described by the other house members as escalating outbursts that were “beyond hyper”. She would be up at all hours of the night and display odd behavior that made the other house members suspect her of using. I was called to come to the house one evening to test Abby for drug and alcohol use.
“Abby I need to come into the bathroom with you Okay? You don’t need to be shy around me…” I began to reassure her but before I could finish my sentence Abby threw her night gown up in an exaggerated movement then squatted down over the toilet. Her night gown flew over her head and her thin naked black body was completely exposed. She did not look like a woman my age, mid-forties, which she was but like an eleven or twelve year old girl, so thin with only little budding nipples, no real breasts. The urine test indicates the presence of drugs in the system. When Abby had finished peeing in the cup, wiped herself and flushed the toilet I unwrapped the test kit and dipped the end of the stick into the amber liquid. I carefully rested the moistened stick on the edge of the bathroom sink setting a timer for five minutes. It reminded me of the countless times I had taken home pregnancy tests over the years, sometimes in eager anticipation, often with anxious dread.
While we waited on the results of the urine test I opened the kit that tests for alcohol in the system. To test for alcohol there is a swab that goes under the tongue. After being inserted in the mouth, if the swab turns blue it’s a positive result. I asked Abby to open her mouth and I held the end of the swab for ten seconds, the recommended time. In those ten seconds I studied Abby’s face, which also reminded me of a small child. Her beautiful skin was shinny and flawless her eyes wandered around the room, her mind obviously in another world, the way a five year behaves when you take their temperature.
“You’re clean Abby.” I said. The swab that had remained white.
The timer went off. I examined the stick for evidence of drugs in her system. “You’re all clear with this test too.”
“I know.” She said without seeming offended.
“Can we talk?” I asked
We went upstairs to Abby’s bedroom so our talk could be private. Abby graciously invited me to sit on her bed. I explained how her behavior was causing concern in the house. She listened, or at least she sat quietly while I talked. Then without responding to my words she hopped up to show me pictures of her family.
“This one is of me when I was a kid. There’s my ma, well not my real ma but my foster ma.” She explained.
“Haha” she laughed “Look at me in that dress, I was so skinny!” Yes she was even skinner than she is now.
“These are some of my foster brothers. That one was nice to me. That one hurt me.” She put the pictures down and sat on the bed. Abby was up and down fiddling with this nibbling at that, looking all around the room while we talked. It just seemed impossible for her to sit still. I could see why the women were having trouble living with such a constant and unpredictable current in the house.
“That foster brother who hurt me…” she began. “He raped me and I got pregnant. I was only 15 years old.”
Abby told me the story of the pregnancy and how no one believed her when she finally revealed who the father was. She told me how she lived through the pain of being judged and dismissed while retaining her sanity. “I held it together up here…” Abby said tapping the temple of her head with her long slender finger. “…because I knew soon I would have a baby to love, and that baby would love me back!”
I know that bliss of experiencing the absolute unconditional love a mother can feel for her baby even before it is born. I remember the elated sense of anticipation of an imminent birth. Abby found strength to survive in her environment by feeding off of the powerful love blossoming inside her heart. She found her circumstances tolerable when she thought of having a future with a family of her own.
“When my baby was born there was something wrong with how she was put together. She had something wrong with her stomach, where she can’t eat. All the milk goes down but it’s got nowhere to go so it just comes right back up. She had that plus a heart condition called Left- hypo…something. No that’s not it…maybe it was Left-hyper something.” Abby struggled to remember the details of the condition.
“I can’t remember what it’s called” she said “but they fixed the eating problem. They couldn’t fix her heart problem. She lived for a year. One night I got a call from the hospital where she was at. ‘Come quick Abby’ they told me. I got a ride to the hospital and they put her in my arms. I held her for four hours. Her breathing became raspy like but I just held her. Then she died. I kept holding her until she was cold.”
Abby paused and uncharacteristically, sat very still before continuing. “After she died I snapped, you know went crazy.” Abby tapped her temple again, but with slower less animated movements. “Later I started seeing the psychiatrist and he put me on all this medication. I started drinking too. It helped me feel better.”
Abby told me all of this without showing any emotion, like it was a fictional story from a bad movie she had seen years ago. Her emotions did not outwardly change but her behavior did. It took Abby an hour to tell me the whole story and the more she talked the calmer she became. She stopped fidgeting and her eyes were fixed on mine as she talked. When she was finished we both sat there in silence for probably five minutes. The river of white water rapids and dangerous currents that was normally Abby’s personality had found its way to a deep still place, currents moving underneath but the surface so still it was like glass.
I don’t feel like an ornament when I’m with Abby.
Abby moved on from our house to a place where there is more hands on professional help for her. I miss her sweet funny personality.
When Abby and I had finished our talk she suddenly became desperate for cigarettes. I took her to the nearby gas station. I parked the car, planning to go in to the store for her as she was dressed in her night gown and robe. But the wild white rapids had surfaced again for Abby and before I could unbuckle my seat-belt she was out the door. Running across the parking lot in her pink fuzzy slippers that matched the pink fuzzy curlers in her hair. Her bathrobe three times too big for her cinched around her tiny waist dragged on the ground. As I watched Abby I realized that she simply appeared as just a funny little woman running across the parking lot in her bathrobe and slippers. No one would guess the deep love and loss she suffered and the deep love that still exists beneath all the layers of pain.
If we listen compassionately and without judgment to our own voice as well as others, we can see beyond the often furiously chaotic surface to where the water runs deep. When the surface of the water is like glass it reflects the glorious light from the sun, some days even splashing magical wonders colors on the walls of our hearts.