We almost didn’t make it to Jamaica. There was a silly passport mistake requiring an expedited miracle, and Christopher calling the government powers-that-be twenty times a day for five days straight, tracking the location of his passport. We even considered alternate plans: Some dismal beach on the Florida Coast overrun by Spring Breakers playing beer pong? The bioluminescent bay off Vieques Island, Puerto Rico (no passport required) and hence, more extravagantly expensive? How about just a long road trip to Niagara Falls, upgrading cold weather for colder weather, but hey, we could dine at The Rainforest Café under the illusion that we were in the Amazon?Thankfully, with twenty-four hours to spare, the passport arrived, and with my mother-in-law armed and ready to keep the riotous factions (2 kids, 2 dogs, 2 cats and the Chinese Water Dragon) in peaceful co-existence for the six days we would be gone, we fled the Bakken capitol, and headed for Negril, our favorite do-nothing beach--sit and stare at beautiful water and maybe paddle around in that turquoise bath and eat pineapple and mango and drink Blue Mountain coffee and listen to impromptu beach musicians play their guitars and sing Bob Marley standards and maybe stroll along the seven mile stretch of sand or maybe not and shoot the breeze with some of Christopher’s long-time Rastafarian friends (whose dreadlocks and beards are fringed with gray after twenty years) and giggle at the wanna-be-Rasta-lobster-sunburned balding guys who truly believe that their scraggly mullets look good in cornrows with beads and then giggle at a sign on the beach, advertising massage services, “Come and Feel the Magic in the Finger,” (oh, the dirty double-entendres keep us going for several minutes) and sidle up to a ramshackle Rasta bar sporting, oddly, Green Bay Packer flags and donated Jamaica-inspired Wisconsin license plates: ONE LUV, MARLEY, BMBA-CLD (bumbaclot, the acme of Jamaican patois for asswipe), and Christopher sighs into his Red Stripe and I slurp up my papaya-banana smoothie and we are surrounded by all these Rasta dudes smoking their foot-long doobies, and everyone is friendly, friendly, friendly, smiling wide, their teeth white against their dark skin, or maybe they’re missing teeth where teeth should be, and some of the guys have their dreadlocks piled up under hats so it seems like giant mushrooms are perched on their heads and others let their dreads hang free, down their backs, some so long they skim their thighs and clearly at this point I must be feeling a contact high because the smoke is swirling all around me and somehow the sun is already setting, splitting the horizon, and Christopher and I are transfixed and suddenly one of the beautiful white gulls, more heron than ordinary seagull, dives from high up straight down into the water like a guided missile and rises with a fish in its beak and flies off, shaking water from its wings and even though this is only our first day in Negril, things could not be more perfect.
Except they are. Add Angela and Rob. Who were not supposed to cross into our lives. Not technically, not if their vacation went according to their plan. Not if the forces of the universe hadn’t aligned in precisely the way they did. Fate at work. My Higher Power arranging my life in a more perfect order, sending me messengers, reminding me that I am not alone on this journey, not even when I am on vacation. There is no vacation from recovery, from staying focused on hope and the next right decision.
Because here’s the thing: this was my first real sober vacation from all my demons. The last time I went to Negril, I wasn’t drinking, but I did smoke Ganja. And I’ve never really had a problem smoking pot, always a very casual, very infrequent dabbling (although it was problematic if I mixed it with alcohol)—in fact, when I’m only stoned, it’s always been both pleasurable and helpful because it actually allows me to be inside my body, to take pleasure in my body, to be connected to my body and not dissociate, not feel fragmented, not feel overwhelmed by flashbacks of past sexual traumatic abuse. The cliché is true: when I’m stoned, I get lost inside the moment of “now”—everything in the “now” feels good and I can stay there, here. So I was feeling really ambivalent. AA tells me all substances are off limits. And I understand that—I need to learn to live inside the “now” of sobriety. And yet, to go to Jamaica where all this lovely, pure, unadulterated Ganja is available? Cheaper than cigarettes? And allows me to take a vacation from the barrage of self-criticism and the constant voice of the Eating Disorder? And allows me to feel un-self-conscious in my body? To be IN my body and not detached? Couldn’t it, for just a few days, be therapeutically helpful?
So I told myself I would take it One Day at A Time. (See how manipulative I can be? Manipulating AA’s treasured recovery slogan for my own use?)
Enter Angela and Rob. Who were not supposed to be there. For four reasons.
1. They were supposed to arrive the day before us.
2. When Angela checked in for her flight in Vancouver, she discovered her passport had expired 12 days previously. (Canada has a better emergency passport system than the US; they re-booked tickets for the following day—the only reason we all collided.)
3. At the very last minute, they decided to buy tickets for the shuttle bus from the airport to Negril we had pre-booked back in November.
4. And happened to sit across from us. And had never been to Negril. And were staying on the cliff side, the opposite end Negril from us (we stay on the beach). So Christopher, being his gregarious self, struck up a conversation, suggesting non-touristy restaurants, mentioned the best fruits sellers on the beach who would carve up pineapples and mangos and water coconuts for a few dollars, the juice guy in the morning who roamed the beach with fresh squeezed carrot-ginger, orange, and mango juice (in recycled rum bottles—no worries, they seemed pretty clean and he’d never been sick yet), the patty man who wheeled his bike up and down the beach around lunchtime selling homemade beef, chicken, and veggie patties, and if they wanted, we were staying at Kuyaba, a small hotel, and were welcome to come and hang at the beach with us since the cliffs were rocky. We didn’t really expect to see them again. You know how brief vacation encounters happen—a few words exchanged, then you go your separate ways into your own version of bliss.
The next day, as we were lazing in the sun, Angela and Rob traipsed onto the beach.
“Holy shit!” I said, “Hey guys!”
We all re-introduced ourselves, exchanged some backstories about how we all almost didn’t make it to Negril—couldn’t believe we had overlapping passport problems. I regaled them with the awfulness of our initial room assignment. We’d booked the “rustic cottage”—and as the manager explained to Christopher when he went to complain, “Our website did call it ‘rustic,’ Sir.”
“But ‘rustic’ pretty much meant shanty,” I said. “We turned the water on, and the only-cold water trickle slowly ran out. And the restaurant’s ice maker was right next to the window behind our bed. And the mattress looked like it had been subject to many years of incontinence. But the breaking point was when I pulled back the sheet and found a millipede. I can’t sleep with worms in the bed. So I told Christopher if he had any hope of any conjugal romance on this trip, he’d make something happen. So Christopher being Christopher, charmed the manager—she came in to “inspect the conditions”—saw me huddled in the corner, wild-eyed like some psychotic consumptive--and we were upgraded to a $200 room, a King Suite, complete luxury, no bugs in the tub or bed. Twenty years ago, I could have rolled with it, but I’m going to be forty, and worms in the bed it where I draw the line.”
“Oh my god,” Angela said. “We got upgraded this morning, too. Our room last night was not what we signed on for either. And get this. I’m going to be forty next week! That’s crazy!” Even crazier was some guy thought we were sisters—but not so crazy, because we did look alike—same dark black hair, both of us tall, similar body type, and fast-forward a few days, we were finishing each other’s sentences.
A few minutes later, Christopher made some comment about “getting too old to old to play both soccer and hockey.”
Rob sat up in his lounge chair and took notice. “How old are you man?”
“Shit,” he said. “Thanks. I’m forty-five. But I don’t feel it.”
Christopher laughed, back-pedaled on his comment. “I’m right with you. I’m going to be forty-five in a few months. And I feel young still. I’m heading up to the bar for a Red Stripe. Anybody want anything?”
“Ting for me,” I said. (A Jamaican grapefruit soda).
“I’ll take a coke,” Rob said. “Thanks.”
“I’ll try a Ting,” Angela said.
While Christopher was gone, this guy, Perrell, a Jamaican-American we’d met earlier came by; his family owned one of the oldest bars in Negril and he was hosting an open-mike the following night and wanted us all to come by. “We make some mean drinks,” he said. “And I’ll be playing Bossa Nova style music along with some guys who play some of the best reggae.”
“Sounds good,” Rob said, “we’ll come down and have some cokes.”
My antennae attuned, after Perrell left, I smiled at Angela and Rob, and said, “Are you guys in the club, too?”
They immediately knew what I meant and Angela said, “Oh my God! You, too?”
That was that. From that moment on, the four of us were pretty much inseparable. As it turned out, both Rob and Angela had been in AA and sober for many, many years. And Rob used to play hockey. And he has a daughter and son around our kids’ ages. And we spent the next five days giggling and having crazy, non-alcohol, non-Ganja fueled encounters.
Case in point: we went snorkeling on together on this glass bottom boat tour which stopped over on this “deserted” island upon which stood a cranky Jamaican Mama selling over-priced flip-flops and “hand-beaded” bracelets and her son who grilled up “freshly-caught” lobsters at twenty-dollars each. Once we arrived on the island, a torrential downpour fell upon us, so we (plus other snorkelers) huddled under the makeshift tent spread over cranky Mama’s wares (and she only grew crankier because we were taking shelter without buying anything), and of course, we were all starving, and one couple bought one grilled lobster which did smell delicious smothered in drawn butter, so we started circling them like flies and cracking jokes about “Lord of the Flies,” and then, in the middle of all that rain, we saw a kayak headed toward us, and in the kayak, we two very buff men paddling in our direction. Christopher ran onto the beach and waved them down.
“Do you need help?” he shouted.
They paddled into shore and emerged like twin Adonii, their extremely muscular, thoroughly waxed bodies barely covered by their extremely miniscule Speedos.
We beckoned them in under the tent. They barely fit, and well, their protruding pectorals and taut gluteus maximuses kicked in a group sense of claustrophobia.
Christopher, ever the host, said, “You need something? You can buy Red Stripe here. Or lobster.”
On closer view, they seemed more Chippendale dancers then Greek gods. Number One unzipped a teeny-tiny pocket on the one-millimeter band of Speedo that hugged his hip. In Brooklynese, he said, “Eh, no money.”
And with that, they looked at each other, flashed some secret signal, waved to us all in tandem, and ran back to the sea, nothing jiggling at all, just bulging, er, erect muscles and strangely, frolicked in the waves and rain (and I do mean frolicked), before hopping back into their kayak, and paddling off into the distance.
“Did that really happen?” Rob asked.
“I think they were looking for a more deserted island,” I said. “And really, what was the point of that pocket? Nothing could fit in there.”
“Certainly not any dollar tips,” Angela said.
That’s what our week together was like. But it was more than that. Angela and Rob kept me steady. They were messengers. The minute I knew on the beach that we were part of the club, I knew any wavering I had about maybe maybe maybe smoking pot was gone. I didn’t need to. I didn’t want to. And truly, for that entire week, had no desire to. Sure, maybe it would have been nice to take a vacation from some of the carry-on baggage in my head. But I’m working to make that lighter every day. Real work. No short cuts. No vacations because I need to carry that with me—it is who I am and I know that alcohol and pot and restricting and purging and cutting only offer the temporary respite. If I indulged in the high for the week, it would all be waiting for me when I returned home, and maybe ITs voice would be louder, more insistent when I returned because I had repressed IT through false, temporary, inauthentic means. And I know the fallout. I’ve suffered those consequences time and time again. I want real recovery this time.
What does real recovery look like in Negril?
This is Recovery: Angela and Rob actually found an AA meeting right off the beach in a little Catholic Church. They came well-prepared. We went together. This is a lesson I must take to heart. The maybe maybes of ambivalence need to be countered with a grounded program. I could have done the same planning as they did—go online and look up information about AA meetings in Negril. Mine for the asking, mine for the taking.
And this is Recovery: Christopher and I went out for yard food one afternoon. Basically cheap, local food. He had goat curry and Red Stripe; I had veggies and rice and fresh carrot juice. The veggies were bland, but the carrot juice? OH MY GOD! Christopher juices carrots at home and I usually take a pass. But this was an elixir from the gods. I took a few sips and then flagged down the waitress, needing desperately to know what was in theirs so Christopher could duplicate it at home.
“Oh,” she said. “We put some carrots and some vanilla and some milk and some Guinness Stout.”
I went numb. I think my heart stopped. I know I immediately started sobbing. An entire year plus twenty days without a drop of alcohol in my body ruined. I didn’t mean to. That’s not what I ordered. The fucking sign said “Fresh Juice. Does this mean I’m at zero again? 385 days are now nothing? That night, I asked Angela and Rob what they thought. Angela told me it’s happened to her before, an inadvertent sip of a drink she’d ordered “virgin” that wasn’t which sent her to the bathroom to force herself to throw it all up.
“I think in the end it’s up to you. How you feel about it. A matter of intention. Of conscience. And now you know you need to be vigilant. Don’t assume anything.”
Carrot juice will never simply be carrot juice again. And I know in my heart my intention was carrot juice. I did not taste any alcohol. It just tasted like carrots and frothy goodness. So I am truly not manipulating this to offer any justification. I did not know. And the fact that once I found out that there was Guinness Stout in the mix and I had a complete somatic instantaneous reaction? Sobbing and nausea and panic? This tells me how much I value my sobriety and I have no intention to wreck what is today 13 months sober.
And this is Recovery: I laughed and laughed and laughed and made new friends, real friends, and met my Canadian twin, and Christopher told me that for the first time, he didn’t have to worry about me because I had allies along with me, I had support, I wasn’t alone and he wasn’t alone with IT and me. And isn’t this what a real vacation is supposed to be? Connection and Presence and Pleasure in the Now which you can take into Tomorrow which is Today?
This is written with gratitude to my messengers, Angela and Rob. You kept my heart and head aligned on my compass of recovery.