When the storm is over and night falls and the moon is out in all its glory and all you're left with is the rhythm of the sea, of the waves, you know what God intended for the human race, you know what paradise is.
HAROLD PINTER, Party Time
Back from my Hellenic adventures, sunnier, older (39 gasp!), not sure if I am any wiser, but the first sober vacation in twenty years. I was skeptical, of course. Wouldn’t I miss the cloudy, icy cold glasses of ouzo? Or the resiny cups of wine from the barrel?
All those dissipated Spring Breaks to Caribbean islands with the sole intentions of becoming an unnatural shade of bronze, hooking up with some equally unnaturally bronzed boy from some exotic college (i.e., outside the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut triangle), and consuming as many cheap (if not free) unnaturally turquoise cocktails rimmed with sugar and umbrellas and other plastic freebie souvenirs. Thankfully, I soon graduated, met my husband-to-be, who introduced me to Greece (ouzo portside, cold Retsina poured from tin pitchers), Italy (Campari and soda with the perfect slice of orange in the late afternoon, followed by picnics in vineyards with a bottle or two of Chianti), France (and afternoons spent wine tasting, then evenings spent, well, wine tasting), and Romania (really?) with its small cramped convenience store I hit every day to buy two bottles of Italian wine—we never knew when they would run out of stock--(a weirdly good and cheap Italian Montepulciano, crammed between terrible Romanian plonk).
This trip, sober? I did not miss any of it. Instead, what I found was an unexpected gift of peace. At least, Dionysus and his cups of seductive, fermented grapes stayed far from my beach blanket. His Sirens sang their songs, wooing my fellow travelers, but not to me. Not one urge, not one desire to drink.
This is not to say that I was free of other oppressive troubles. Every day I was plagued by urges to restrict my food. How absurd! I mean, I was measuring out spoonfuls of real Greek yogurt, the kind your spoon stands straight up in, feeling guilty about eating an unintended, tree-ripened peach, going back and forth and back and forth about whether an extra olive would, calorie-wise, be worth it. And encountering my previous purge sites, a shameful archaeology. Oh, there’s the tamarisk tree I puked behind like some overheated, sick dog. And there’s the scarlet bougainvillea bush I threw up in, my head thrust through the branches like some desperately thirsty hummingbird.
Then there were the vines of scars on my arms thrown into glaring white relief by the immediately acquired tan given by the splendid, dopamine-revving Greek sun. I not only felt crazy, but looked crazy—I mean, arm-cutting might be a quasi-coolish-dramatic-mark of the angst-ridden, Plath-filled tribe of the outsider twenty-ish dangerous and deep and depressed, but on a 39 year old Momma of two kids running helter-skelter along the beach, a wife of one of the esteemed poet-prose writers serving as faculty for the writing seminar being held on this Greek island?
Wasn’t I just as bad as one of those wino hags at the local dive bar wearing the too-tight, bedazzled tank top, spelling out, “Bitch At Heart” in rhinestones across silicone enhanced boobs, sucking down the off-label Jack and Cokes, trying to pick up much younger men, believing herself still to be the seventeen year old hot hootchie she (never) was?
And yet. I’d be swimming in that glorious blue water of the Aegean, and out of nowhere, the Bipolar Furies would suddenly catch up with me, hands grabbing at my feet, trying to pull me under, voices whispering in my ears, “You will never get away from us. You will never be free. You belong to us. To this emptiness. Just let us pull you down. Give in. It will be easier just to let go.” A moment of believing this. A moment too long. Let go. Yes. The relief. The release.
But. Those snorkel maniacs on the beach waiting for me. A.K.A. My kids and husband.
So. A fast and furious paddle back to shore where I’d flop on the towel, listen to the endless, reliable lapping of the waves that whispered their own comfort--You are here, safely moored, safely shored--surrender to sun, let the light blind me, let the light edge out all that darkness.
Books saved me. A novel a day. Manic reading perhaps. Thank god for Kindle and instant download. The more benevolent Furies tugging me into lives other than my own. The logic of paragraphs, the grammar of a sentence to counteract (counterattack) the racing thoughts, the dissociative, destructive urges. One action leads reliably to another, the cause and effect of a well-developed plot, unlike my own volatile, often blind stumblings.
What else brought me back to shore, to my senses in those often senseless moments? Ironically, the thought of my return to, of all places, home. Back to my friends, back to my new friends at my Partial Hospitalization Program and its daily routine, back to my AA meetings, back to my life which isn’t paradise, but isn’t, miraculously, momentarily, momentously hell anymore.