Monday, February 27, 2012

My Grateful Sober Thoughts for the Day

February 27, 2012

Hi, my name is Kerry and I’m an Alcoholic.  Today, I have twelve months of sobriety, hard won, hard fought, hard lived, and gracefully and gratefully bestowed upon me. 

Such a simple collection of words, and yet, it took me so many years to put them together into that sentence and say it out loud.  Today, I can say this without shame and fear.  Of course, over this past year of living sober, I’ve come to realize I am not just an alcoholic, but a loving wife and mother and daughter and daughter-in-law and sister and sister-in-law and friend and fellow-friend in recovery.  I am also compassionate and open and honest.  I am able to be trusted, once again, since I have regained some measure of integrity.  I am beginning to believe, against ITs nagging judgments, that I deserve hope and forgiveness.  I am beginning to learn through the “suggestions” of AA, through the 12 Steps, and through Dr. B.’s wise and loving counsel, that yielding my rigid and often misconceived control, that nothing, in fact is being taken away from me; rather, in being open and willing to follow the path to recovery and sanity shown to me by those who want me to live a more joyous, serene, and blessed (did I just use that word?!) life, everything—my life, my future—is being given to me.

Exactly one year ago today, I was inpatient in the psychiatric hospital, admitted because I was considered suicidal, had once again veered beyond the safety of the guardrails.  The prior afternoon, I had attended a baby shower.  If you recall from earlier posts, I was not supposed to be drinking.  Not supposed to be drinking for the previous two years.  Of course, despite the lock my husband installed on the liquor cabinet, I’d been drinking whenever a chance presented itself.  Emptying wine glasses left on dinner tables, sneaking drinks when my husband forgot to lock the cabinet—a swig of vodka, followed by a swig of scotch, followed by a long gulp of ouzo-- trying to keep all the bottles level, even, at a desperate moment, polishing off a bottle of vanilla extract when baking a batch of chocolate chip cookies for the kids.  As the say in Limbo, “How low can you go?”  I win the prize: Vacation for One Puking in the Toilet Bowl! 

I don’t remember the baby shower, or coming home from the baby shower.  Apparently, at the baby shower, I disappeared into the kitchen and furiously downed several glasses of wine.  My husband was called because I was THAT drunk; he came with the kids to pick me up.  I woke up a year ago today in my bed, my arms once again hacked with scissors or a knife, wanting to die.  He drove me that morning up to the hospital as I was supposed to be having an ECT treatment.  My psychiatrist saw my arms, heard me manically spewing forth all the reasons why I should die, took my weight (dangerously low, once again), listened to my husband’s account of the previous day and my manic purging over the past few weeks.  That was that.  I was admitted and plans were made to send me ASAP  to the Arizona inpatient program for Eating Disorders where I had been two years previously.  No mention of Alcoholism, though my husband did say I couldn’t come home again, couldn’t live with him and the kids if I couldn’t put an end to the drinking and the lying.

As you well know, that inpatient Eating Disorders program worked for a time, but not for long.  But what did change?  The desert landscape has a profound effect on clarity, especially when you are sobering up.  At least it did on me.  All those canyons and mesas, the expanse of sky, the blood red sunsets, the brilliant sunrises and the cacti.  The tall saguaro cacti with their sharp spines.  That was me, all my sharp spines exposed.  Nothing around me for miles and miles, just this land and sky coming together, scraping together against me, and I was parched, literally starving from anorexia, exhausted from crawling on my bare hands and knees all those miles and miles for the past few years, hell, the past decades of my life, trying to lead that double life.  In the desert, there is no place to hide—all my prickly spines glaring in the blazing light for everyone to see, for God, or my Higher Power to see.  Even though I am post-Catholic, I remember that story of Jesus out there in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights, fasting, tempted by Satan, and upon his return, Jesus’s faith was transformed, and he became a leader, a miracle worker, someone who could offer hope to the hopeless.

Now, as I was in an Eating Disorders program, I couldn’t literally fast, but on a similar note, all possible access to alcohol, my great agent for suicide, was removed.  And since in my admission questionnaire I admitted to a “problem with alcohol,” I was compelled to go to the 6am off-campus AA meetings, yes, the sunrise meetings, filled with genuine, hard-ass, cowboys and cowgirls who didn’t accept my mealy-mouthed, tentative “I have a desire not to drink” pseudo-confessions. 

This teeny-tiny, wiry cow-gal, named Dana, with beautiful curly black hair that fell to her hips all the way from beneath her Stetson, took me aside after a meeting one morning and placed her hand on my shoulder and said, “Look, I’ve been where you’ve been.  And I can see the shame and fear is just about ready to kill you.  But I promise you, it’s going to be okay, you’ll see.  Admitting to alcoholism will free you and you’ll find that you can stop running.  Because right now, you look like something is hunting you down.”

Of course, she was right.  I was hollowed out, gaunt and crazed from running away, running myself into the ground, running myself into dust.  Time to stop, to breathe, to take succor in truth and light and grace and hope and honesty. 

Step 1: Admit I was powerless over alcohol and my life had become unmanageable.  I was absolutely an alcoholic.  Working in triumvirate, my Bipolar Disorder, my Eating Disorder and my Alcoholism were intent upon taking my life.  Their only intent.  It was up to me to decide once and for all, to dismantle ITs power and to regain balance and stability with the guidance of AA, my wiser doctors, and the support of loving family and friends. 

When I left the Arizona program, Dana gave me a gift, a silver bracelet filled with turquoise beads—“So you don’t forget where your journey back to life started,” she said.  As I write this, I look down at my arm, still banded with the flash of turquoise and silver, and I think of that beginning gift of those sunrise meetings, of how starved and parched I was when I arrived in the desert and how truly blessed and loved and forgiven I am right now, in this day, the twelfth month of my sobriety.  My son, Alexander, is sitting next to me on the couch, reading aloud from his library book: “Hooray for Fly Guy!” (A year ago, he couldn’t even read!)  He is asking me for help with the hard words (touchdown, quarterback, laughed).  I kiss him over and over along his neck which makes him giggle and shriek.  In five minutes, I’m about to pick up my daughter from her talent show dress rehearsal.  She’s dancing to a Selena Gomez song, “Summer’s Not Hot”—a dance she and her friend invented on their own, definitely high on the gung-ho, all-out enthusiasm, maybe a little-lower on the coordination, but hey, I’m her mom, so I get to say it is Absolutely Perfect!  And in an hour or so, I go to yoga class, bliss out with my friend Roberta, who has been steadfast and has the most beautiful heart and can also laugh and get snipey along with me.  And tonight, I get to curl up on the couch with Christopher, watch trashy TV, eat his delicious food (and not purge, and yes, eat a normal sized-portion), and be surrounded by our dogs, their doggy love and doggy farts.  And tonight, go to bed knowing that I have managed not only to survive this long year back from hell, but have thrived.  I am like the tall saguaro cactus, covered in sharp spines, but improbably blooming clusters of pure white flowers with hearts of sunshine.

AA offers “The Promises,” to those of us who follow The Steps, saying, “If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness…”  I am only a mere Twelve Months on this journey of recovery, nowhere near “halfway through,” and already the miracle is at work, and I am that miracle because I am here and mostly happy and free of the desire to drink and filled with gratitude that I have been given this day surrounded with love and friendship and able to offer my love and friendship in whole-hearted return.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Half In/Half Out or All In?

February 13, 2012

I’ve never really struggled with where or how to begin writing one of my posts.  Then again, I’ve never had to visit a friend in the hospital who is days away from dying from an Eating Disorder.  After a thirteen year struggle with Anorexia and Bulimia, her heart has finally given out, can no longer circulate oxygen.  Her potassium levels have bottomed out.  Her organs are shutting down.  I don’t know how to write about this with my usual panache; don’t know how to package this in elegant prose. 

I walked into the cardiac intensive care unit and Laurie (not her real name) was lying on the bed, wired to machines and monitors, hooked up to oxygen, pale and wan.

“Kerry,” she gasped, struggling to sit up and gave me a hug, holding on to me as tight as she could.  I hugged her back, gently, not wanting to squeeze any breath out of her.  Another friend stood by her bed.  Blond, tanned, and skinny.  Laurie waved her over.  “This is Melanie (another alias).  She’s Ana (aka anorexic), too.  Kerry’s Ana, too.  Let’s just get that out there so none of us feel awkward.”

Okay.  I felt awkward.  I mean, maybe I am struggling with an Eating Disorder, but I am not my Eating Disorder, and I’m trying to be in recovery.  But okay.  Laurie is dying, so just go with the flow, right?

“Does it smell like smoke in here?” Laurie asked, then fitted the oxygen line back into her nose.

I raised my eyebrows.

Melanie laughed.  “Laurie just smoked in the bathroom.  I had to sit on the bed so the alarms wouldn’t go off while she was in there.”

“They have the bed rigged so alarms go off if I get out of bed,” Laurie explained, laughing again. 

“Hold on guys, I need to stop talking.  Just give me a minute.  I can’t breathe.”  She collapsed back into pillow and closed her eyes, taking shallow breaths, then slowly opened her eyes again and reached for her cup of water.  She took a quick sip, sloshed the water around her mouth, then spit it out in an empty cup.

Melanie was thumbing through a Cosmo magazine, the front cover displaying some airbrushed, hyper-thin celebrity surrounded by headlines promising super-fast weight loss and power-burn exercise tips and 10-ways-to-cock-tease-your-mate-and-make-him-yours-forever articles inside.

Laurie sheepishly shrugged.  “I’m restricting water now.  That’s so fucked up, right?  I’m dying and I know it, but that’s how deep in this disease I am.”  She started to cry, struggling for breath again, and monitors started beeping.

I took her hand in mine.  “It’s okay,” I said.  “I’m not judging you.  I know how fucked up this disease can be.  It takes everything from you.  It lies to you.”

Melanie sat on the other side of the bed, and took her other hand.

Laurie looked at both of us.  “This wasn’t supposed to happen.  I wasn’t supposed to be one of those girls who die from Anorexia.  I’m twenty-seven.  I’m not supposed to die.  And now I am.  My husband is going to have to bury me.  And my mom.  How could I have done this to them?  How could I have been so selfish?  How could I have let this disease do this?  I’ve ruined everything, everyone.”  She collapsed, burying her head in her hands, sobbing, damning herself.

“Look at me,” I said, “You’re forgiven.  You’re loved.  You’re already forgiven.  It’s okay.”

I’ve been there.  The waterfall of guilt, the guilt that buries you, the guilt that makes you hold a knife to your wrist, the guilt that makes you swallow fistfuls of pills, the guilt that makes you believe that aiming your car into a tree will save your husband and kids from the burden of having to save you once again from yourself.  But I am here now, holding her hand, offering support, not the woman dying in a hospital bed.

That’s what Laurie pointed out to Melanie, too.  “Look how good she’s doing!  Kerry was just in the hospital in September!  And it’s been how many months?”

“Five months.”

Melanie looked at me in astonishment.  “How did you do it?”

“I have a therapist who won’t let me get away with anything.  The threat of a state hospital.  Wanting to be around for my kids and husband.  And eating three meals a day.”
Melanie stared at me in astonishment.  “You eat three meals a day?  I could never do that.  I eat maybe one meal, and I still take laxatives and water pills.”

Then Lauriejumped out of bed, ignoring the alarms for a moment, and pulled up her shirt.  “What do you think?”

What was I supposed to be thinking?  Ahh, I was supposed to be complimenting weight loss, the smaller body beneath all the taped wires.

“How much do you think I weigh now?  Don’t worry.  I won’t be mad if you guess more.  And all this is just extra skin from losing it all so fast these past few weeks.”
I wanted to throw up.  But she was insisting.  Fuck me.  Fuck this disease.  “I don’t know.  120?”

She looked triumphant.  “No way, girl.  109. 10 pounds just in the last 2 weeks!”
“But you’re fucking dying,” I said.

She climbed back into bed.  “I know,” she said, and started crying again.  “That’s what so fucked up.  I know I’m dying and yet I feel like it still isn’t enough.  But I don’t want to die.  I can’t die.  I want to live.  I am not ready to let this disease take me.  I still have the fight in me.  I’ll go down fighting.  I won’t give in easily.”

Of course, recovery from an Eating Disorder requires making a choice—there are those moments when you have to choose Life over Death.  Today I will eat a piece of bread, an apple, a cup of yogurt.  Today I will follow my meal plan.  Today I will not purge.  Today I will not exercise.  Today I will follow what my Recovery Team has decided is in my best interest even if I rail against it.  Today I will not follow the voice of ED (or IT).  Today I will yield, cede control, follow the way of recovery rather than MY way which will surely lead to death.  Today.  And Today might lead to Tomorrow which might give me a future.  Which might lead to hope.  Grounded, promising hope.

But, for all that buoyant, sanguine, can-do recovery cheerleading, there is also the underlying bio-chemical brain pathology associated with Eating Disorders--the consequential structural changes in the brain associated with starvation, as well as the other neurological pathways that have to be rewired after years of obsessional thought patterns and behaviors.  So it shouldn’t have shocked me that when the nurse brought Laurie her Potassium pill--the very thing keeping her heart beating—Laurie popped the pill in her mouth, the nurse left, and Laurie spit the pill back into her cup and asked me to flush it down the toilet.

“I can’t” she said, “It will make me gain water weight.”

This is the surreal, insane end game of an Eating Disorder.  I have been here, too.  My heart has never been here, but almost.  Just a few months ago I was wearing a twenty-four hour monitor because doctors were concerned about some abnormal rhythms.  But all was well.  There have been some electrolyte problems.  Some close-to-blackout dizzy spells.  And my brain has certainly been a losing pawn in that surreal, insane end game.  How many inpatient programs and hospitalizations?  How many manic-psychotic breaks due, in part, to starvation? 
Take the Potassium and you might live.  Flush the Potassium and you will likely die.  The starved brain is insane, cannot think or see clearly or make any rational decisions. 

I still get tripped up by this.  For instance, when I look at myself, all I see it someone who is “normally” sized, despite the fact that my husband tells me my ribs stick out, my hipbones jut out, and my collarbones are visible beneath sweaters.  You see, I’m eating; I’m following my mealplan; I’m not even exercising; I haven’t purged in months.  So what I see, by evidence of the fact that my eating has been “normalized,” is a normal body, albeit a “slim” body.  But that has been my genetic destiny all across my lifespan, so why all the fuss?  But every now and then, in those 3-way mirrors in dressing rooms, I catch a brief glimpse of myself, and for a whisper of a second, I allow myself to see what he (and likely Dr. B.) see—the ribs, the hipbones, the still-underweight, still-too-thin woman.  I look away quickly, unable to…  No.  Stop there.  Unwilling to see that body.  I don’t believe in that reflection.  The Eating Disorder tells me that I am just fine as I am.  What everyone else sees is a lie, a distortion.  All they want is for me to get fat, and fatter.  To join the McDonald’s crowd.  I know.  I make them feel guilty.  I remind them that they have lost control because I have maintained control.

See?  Just like alcoholism, an Eating Disorder is cunning, baffling, and powerful.  It will find a way to worm its way in, to manipulate the genuine care and concern of others and transform it into a spiteful power struggle wherein ED must emerge the victor—and victory can only be Death.

For years now, Dr. B. has been asking me, “Do you want to be thin or sane?  Do you want to be thin or sane?”

I’ve played dumb.  “Why can’t I have both?  Be both?”

I think I’m done testing out that “And.”  It truly is an “Either/Or” for me.  Just like it is for my friend Laurie.  She wants to live and yet, she spits out the Potassium pills. 

Another push from Dr. B.: “You can’t be half in and half out.  You can’t be pursuing living at the same time that you’re also trying to die.”

Miraculously, Laurie made it home and is on a twenty-four hour breathing machine.  Her heart can still stop at any second.  She is trying to gather enough seconds, enough minutes and hours and days to stabilize so that she can be admitted to an Eating Disorders Critical Care unit.  It will be her third time in that program if she lives long enough to make it there.  If.  Half In-Half Out is all about testing the if-then-maybe hypothesis.  If I don’t take the Potassium pill, then I won’t gain water weight, and maybe I’ll die, but maybe I won’t, and if I don’t die, then I’ve won another round, and I don’t have to look in that mirror and see the truth.

All in.  Dr. B.  keeps asking me if I can yield.  All in.  Do I have the courage to look in the mirror and see myself as I am and see the truth without the lies?