We were talking about parts of my childhood when my therapist said, almost wistfully, “It sounds very lonely.”
There was a long quiet spot in the conversation while I thought about that.
Lonely? Me? Surely she was mistaken. I had a family. I had friends. I liked being alone, even as a kid. And as an adult … man, I was born to quarantine. I’ve joked before about the moat I’m building. This feels especially conspicuous right now, with so many so excited that they’ll be getting back out there, seeing people, seeing friends, going to school, going to parties, laughing.
I’m dreading that I’m so out of practice making up excuses as to why I can’t make it.
Maybe I don’t understand what loneliness is. And not understanding it, how would I even recognize it?
But I was lucky, at the start. I’d found the perfect partner: someone who felt as good to be with as it felt to be alone.
“But we cannot simply sit and stare at our wounds forever.” – Haruki Murakami
There’s light at the top of the stairs.
(It was never light before. His door was closed, his window shut, his blinds drawn against people, sun, wind and stars.
It was always dark at the top of the stairs.)
So we opened the blinds, opened the window, painted the wall facing it firefly yellow.
June 22, 2007, dawned beautiful, clear and bright in our corner of the Mid-Atlantic. A perfect day for a little bit of a sail. A perfect day for a little bit of a wedding.
John and I had been living together for most of a decade. We’d always made a big deal about the anniversary of our hooking up, I guess you’d call it, romantics that we were. In thinking of how to celebrate our 10th, getting married seemed like the obvious choice.
There was only ever one consideration for a venue. She was one of a gorgeous pair of 72-foot schooners, operating in town, berthing at night in the slips right outside our apartment complex. Surprisingly affordable, she offered many things, including an organic constraint to the size of a wedding party, and extra conversational points for having been featured in a big-budget movie. Those are just minor details for flavor, though. All we really wanted was to get married on a boat, on the water, with plenty of booze.
Lately I’m seeing, from a social distance, conversations about our potentially post-pandemic summer that can be summed up as: It’s going to be Sodom and Gomorrah out there. If you can’t get laid this summer, just hang it up. Meanwhile, six months post-divorce, my reflexive gag is that not only am I not dating, not even looking, I’m building a moat.
It’s a joke. (Mostly. At least partly. A bit, anyway…) I think it’s funny. But here’s a great tip for free: never tell your good jokes to your therapist. They’ll wreck ‘em. They just can’t help it. I gave mine the whole moat bit with a nudge and a wink (or the Zoom equivalent), and she told me, rather seriously, “Barbara, you’re not keeping others out, you’re keeping yourself in.”
Hope terrified me at the first sight of it. It froze me in my tracks, right there in the basement, the laundry basket on my hip.
I’d done everything I could to end it. I’d gotten the lawyer, gotten the agreements, and refinanced the house. I’d untethered phones, cable, and internet. I’d started in the tightest circle, telling the news, expanding it outward like a slow ripple. I’d packed everything I could from the parts of the house that were mine, the things that we’d agreed would be his, boxes stacked in neat rows as close to the front door as possible. Ready for him to take. Ready for him to go.
For his part, he had managed to get his own place. But he wasn’t leaving. Even with a literal key to his new, loudly-desired life in his hand, he sat, week after week, behind the closed door of his bedroom, drinking, not even hiding it anymore. Not taking. Not going.
It was early in June the day our friend Tom got out of bed, long before the sunrise, without disturbing his wife. He got dressed, went to the basement, and fed lettuce to his Russian tortoise Nadenka, as he did every morning. While she munched away in her pen, he wiped the hard drive on his desktop. Looking over his significant gun collection, a point of pride, he selected one of the pair of pearl-handled revolvers, loaded it, and pocketed it. He then stole silently up the stairs, grabbed his cell phone, his wallet, and his car keys, and left a note for his wife telling her where he would be.
He drove for a while that morning, about an hour, to a nature reserve that was one of his favorite spots. He parked along the side of the road, conspicuous, not in any parking spot. But it was still early, quiet. He’d have some time. He got out, left his cell phone and wallet on the dashboard and the keys in the ignition. He took the revolver.
At some point, I ceased to exist.
It’s Sunday evening, 7 p.m., and he announces he’s going to a meeting. An alarm clangs in the back of my skull. I remember having mellow faith in fellow humans, enjoying the luxury of assuming you’re not being lied to, and being right. However, I tend now more to eternal, endless vigilance, and the trouble is, I know too much. There’s no meeting in our area at 7 p.m. on a Sunday evening.
Your voices. Many voices. Consistent voices telling the same stories about how addiction works, and how denials only make matters worse.
I hear you. I hear from you. Mostly in private messages, but sometimes out in the open for all to see. I’ve heard how my story gives you hope. I need you to hear from me how your stories give me strength to keep going. To keep sharing.
To keep telling our stories.
And now, I want to expand the story into your voices. There is strength in numbers. If we are going to crush the stigma that makes high-functioning alcoholism so pervasive, it will take all of our voices.
While playing soccer last weekend, my son pointed and laughed at me. We were running around on a frosty morning, and I had developed a string of snot dangling from my left nostril. I thanked my son for drawing my attention to the booger chain (while drawing the attention of everyone else, too), and made the very classy move of grabbing it with my hand and wiping it on my leg (why I didn’t wipe it on the grass is a mystery to me). Other than some exclamations of, “Oooh yuck,” and, “Gross,” it was over and we played on. Luckily, in the age of COVID, there were no handshakes or high-fives for the other players to awkwardly avoid after the game. I did notice no one wanted to rub my leg in celebration.
It was over. It was time to move on. The regrets had been overwhelming. In fact, the debilitating shame was the only thing powerful enough to force my hand and mandate my need for behavioral change. The stigma, the embarrassment, the broken promises, the trust I crushed under my clumsy heel like an insignificant ant – all of it accumulated into a malignant mass that had to be cut out of my soul for my very survival. And I did just that. I changed for the only reason anyone ever makes significant change. Pain. I was drowning in pain.
But even the deepest, most fundamental change was not enough for her. The trillions of sincere apologies. The remorse. The repentance. The reparations. None of it was enough. It was never enough.