Thursday, June 30, 2011


Grief is like being underwater.

One moment you're swimming along effortlessly, your strong strokes slide through the surface of the clear blue water.

Then without warning, you're sinking.  Down, down, into the silence.

You hang there, weightless and still, and you wait.

You know that right above you, shimmering just out of reach, people move about their day, unaware of this silent world-beneath-the-world.

But you?  You are in a state of suspended animation, without even the rush of air filling your lungs to distract you.  All you hear is the steady beating of your own heart; its rhythm is the antidote to the sadness:  I'm.  Still.   Here.

It's nice, in the quiet.  Here you are invisible; safe in your cocoon of grief where nothing can reach you.  Out there in the world light and sound are jarring, rudely poking their noses into your consciousness as you tiptoe from one moment to the next. Out there you have to Smile and Move On.  Here you can simply be.

How odd, you think, that grief is comforting.  Wrapped in its tight embrace you have permission to drop away from the mundane needs of everyday life, to not cope for a while. 

You don't want to let go of the silence, the calm, the reverie.  When you're here you can close your eyes and imagine the world as it felt before.  

But you can't stay, no matter how much you want to.  You are only a visitor here.  Your lungs begin to twitch, aching for air, and you know you have to return.

Taking one last long look around, you smile.  Good-bye.

You tilt your face upwards, and with a few strong kicks of your legs you feel the sun on your face, and hear the sound of your children's laughter from the shore.  "Come see, Momma!"  they shout. 

And you do.  You go see.  

You surface.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Dependent Arising

I'm sitting on my porch in the early dawn light, sipping my coffee and staring at a fence post.

That post started its life somewhere as a mighty tree, I think.  Someone, somewhere, cut down a tree, and shipped it to a processing plant where it was fashioned into a post and then shipped it to a store - did it travel on a barge? a truck? - where some previous owner purchased it and installed it around our little house. 

I wonder who painted it first, and how many years ago. I ponder what their life was like at the time; did they have a gaggle of kids running around?  Were they sweating in the hot summer sun?  Did they think they would always live here?

I remember when Steve applied a fresh coat of paint to the fence a few years back.  I barely noticed.

Get a grip, Ellie, I start to think.  It's just a fence post.  But I've been looking at life through these new lenses a lot these days, as I struggle to adjust to my New Normal.  I think about the inter-connectedness of all things, and how all these little non-events, these non-things, barely register as we rush through life.

There is a name for this concept, and I search my brain until I remember what it's called:  dependent arising. 

It's a Buddhist concept, one I read about in a book at some point. A cornerstone to Buddhist philosophy, an essential element of Natural Law, it states that all phenomena are arising together in a mutually interdependent web of cause and effect.

Dependent arising, I think.  We don't notice how interconnected we all are until something comes along to knock us off the rails.

We are self-centered, as a whole, believing that the direction and flow of our lives emanates from us, from our will.  We like to believe that we are firmly in control; it is more comforting that way.

In reality, though, life flows through us, around us, the culmination of millions of decisions, thoughts and relationships.  We don't register that picking up the phone as we were running out the door, instead of letting it ring, could have saved us from a car accident, or led us straight into one.  Or how a kind word to a total stranger creates a ripple effect of positivity in the world.  Of course, the opposite is true, too. 

We don't think about how many little events had to occur to culminate in each individual moment of our day - how many things had to fall into place to run into that person at the supermarket, or be there to pick up the phone when a friend needs a warm voice.  

Eveything we do, everything we think, everything we say - it all matters.  A lot.  It's just that we don't think about it much, because we're rarely in a moment, always thinking about the next thing.  

When life knocks you for a loop, when someone you love is ripped away, you do think about these little non-events.  Last phone calls, last visits, become treasured memories instead of just another conversation.  

The last time I spoke to my Dad, he called my cell phone - something he rarely did - to give me the name of a Trust and Estates lawyer he knew, so Steve and I could get started on a will.  I was rushing around Target, making little decisions about groceries, and I was distracted.  He also wanted to tell me he was going through his things, looking for tools and equipment he didn't need living life in a condo.  He told me he was setting some things aside for Steve to look over the next time we visited.  A next visit we will never have, because two days later he was gone.

I think back over this conversation a lot.  The irony that he called to talk about wills and giving away some of his things is not lost on me.  Dad and I usually ended our phone conversations with an 'I love you'.  I'd like to think we did this time, too, but I don't remember.

These new lenses hurt my eyes sometimes. It's difficult to feel the importance of all the small things, and easy to succumb to fear.  When every moment, every decision, feels so important - what if it's a last moment? what if making this small decision leads to disaster? - it makes me want to curl up in a ball and sleep. 

But slowly, slowly, I'm adjusting to this new found clarity.   The trick, I'm learning, is to surrender to the fact that we're buffeted about - buoyed, really - by dependent arising.  We suffer when we fight against the natural flow of things, when we rail against a current that sweeps us in a direction we hadn't planned on going.

Mostly, this new clarity is helping me keep my head and my feet in the same place. I remember to utter that kind word, to try to bring gratitude, and not fear, to the forefront.   It helps with anger, too.  Because sometimes I'm just really, really angry, and I stamp my existential feet at the unfairness of it all.   I want him back, I think.  I want just one more hug, one more chance to say I love you. 

But, of course, one more time could never be enough, and I find peace when I recall that I ended every visit with a hug, every phone call with an 'I love you'.

As I sip the last of my coffee, the first rays of sunshine peek over the horizon.   Dependent arising, I think, and vow to carry wonder, awe and gratitude in my heart today, to appreciate the culmination of events, people, thoughts and decisions that carry me from one moment to the next.  

What I carry in my heart is the only part I have control over, really, I think, with a final glance at the fence post, and I choose love.

Friday, June 24, 2011

For Dad

**This is the eulogy I wrote about my father; I read it at his funeral yesterday.  It is hard to describe how full my heart felt to see almost five hundred people come to his funeral to honor his memory. 

I love you, Dad, and I miss you more than mere words can express.


I have an enduring image of my father.

We’re on a family hike, Mt. Moosilauke, perhaps. There were many family hikes, but my Dad’s outfit never varied. He’s wearing a red “crusher” hat, a blue bandana tied around his neck and wielding a walking stick he fashioned out of “perfectly good” wood he found in the forest. A folded map pokes from his back pocket, and his pack is stuffed to the hilt with anything we could ever possibly need for our climb: a green water canteen, moleskin, more maps, a compass, band-aids, bug spray. And, of course, Gorp – a concoction of granola, peanuts and M & Ms

I’m about ten years old, and it feels like we’re never, ever going to get to the top. My sister and I moan and complain, stopping more than necessary to drink water and pick the M & Ms out of the food bag.
My father is undaunted, patiently leading us on, pointing out the blue trail markers blazed on the trees. “The trick,” he says, “is to pace yourself. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other and before you know it, you’ll be there.”

And, of course, we do get there, slowly but surely, and as we hit the summit Dad breaks into a smile. “Isn’t it something?” he says, as we gaze out over the peaks of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. And yes, it really is something.

This image stays with me because it encapsulates so much about what it was like to grow up under his loving, patient, steady guidance.

Words seem too small to describe Dad. To us he was larger than life, a steadfast presence, someone who would always be there to help us along the way. He wasn’t one for lectures or finger wagging; he taught us what we need to know about life by living it. And he always, always put family first.

My Dad worked hard, but of course as kids we couldn’t appreciate what he did for a living. What we knew was that he was home for dinner – every night. He would often have to work late into the evening, or head out again for a meeting, but each night he would walk in the door just as we set dinner on the table.

Family vacations were spent camping, hiking, canoeing, skiing or fishing. Dad loved to get off the grid; some of my fondest memories are of our times out at our beach cottage, bobbing around on the sea fishing for flounder. We would spend days together as a family in tents, paddling down rivers, hiking through the woods. Everywhere he went, Dad brought his unbridled curiosity about the world, and his seemingly endless knowledge of all things natural. Even during our eye-rolling teenage years, we would eventually be swept up in Dad’s quiet enthusiasm.

Dad taught us the importance of hard work, responsibility and balance by embodying these values and infusing everything he did with dedication, humor and patience.

He made us want to succeed in life, but it had nothing to do with prestige, pedigree, recognition or prominence, and everything to do with doing our best, giving back and having a grateful heart.

Perhaps the greatest gift my father gave us was to teach us compassion. He gave back – tirelessly – to every community he served. He gave his time – he gave himself – to his friends, family, church, town, school and to the less fortunate. As children we couldn’t appreciate how special this was, of course. As we grew into young adults, however, we began to understand that Dad’s compassion and dedication to giving back were at the very core of everything he stood for, everything he taught us.

Dad preferred to see the good in people, the possibility. He expressed a limitless curiosity in the things that interested us. Whether it was photography, horses or making jewelry, he wanted to know about our lives, who we knew, what we were doing, and would ask thoughtful questions in his own unobtrusive way. When we strayed from the path, got lost through poor choices or circumstance, he was there to gently nudge us back onto the rails - not with judgment, but with love and encouragement.

He taught us how to navigate adversity by playing to our strengths, rather than dwelling on our weaknesses. His motto would not have been ‘I Told You So’, but rather ‘I Believe In You’.

He wasn’t one for grand proclamations or recognition, and so it is possible that this next statement would have made him uncomfortable, but it is true: he was beloved by everyone who knew him. He was respected by so many because he was, himself, so respectful.

I realize I don’t have to search for words to describe Dad. All I have to do is look around this church, at all the people who have come together today from near and far, to honor his memory. Whether you knew my Dad as a colleague, friend, a co-committee member or trustee; whether you knew him from church, school or around town, from the good old days or only recently, you know what I mean about his authenticity, compassion, loyalty, humor and dedication, because he brought his whole self to every interaction, every relationship.

Dad taught us that you get back from the world exactly what you put into it; if you bring light, love and compassion to the world, then you will get light, love and compassion in return. And when you do? You give it right back again.

And so I carry the image of my father ahead of us on the trail, a walking stick in one hand and a map in the other, patiently beckoning us forward, encouraging us in his own quiet way to put one foot in front of the other, until we get to where we’re all going.

And the view from up there? It is really something, I’m sure.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Father's Day

Today was hard, probably the hardest day yet.

Without the numbing effects of shock and disbelief to cradle me, I felt the loss of my Dad profoundly today. 

Father's Day.

It helps me to write in this space.  Someday soon I won't only write about losing my Dad, but for now writing about how I'm feeling gives me some peace of mind.

I get a daily email from Hazeldon, a recovery organization.  I haven't opened one in a while, but today's reflection hit home:

"Grief may be a pathway to our deepest connections.
People often say, "I don't want to burden you with my troubles, you have enough to worry about." Yet sharing our troubles with our partner or close friends lightens our burden and restores our balance. Telling someone our experiences and how we feel about them helps us find and create the meaning that lurks behind them, even though they at first seem only crazy and random. Sharing with others pulls us out of isolation and brings our friends and mate into the circle of our lives.
We may be surprised to feel the knots in our stomachs loosen when we tell our stories and recount our worries or grief. Grief may make us feel more alone than anything. But it may also be a pathway for our deepest connection with each other. When we reach out and talk with our friends or mate, we break down the wall of isolation and build bridges that connect us."
This has certainly been true for me. I am surrounded by loving friends and family, and as I talk to them I do feel the coil in my gut loosen, the knot in my shoulders unclench. A burden shared is indeed a burden cut in half.

And, of course, life trudges on. Today was a beautiful day; the sun was shining in a clear blue sky, and we made our way into the city to honor the other amazing Dad in our lives:  Steve.

I met my mother and brother for a beautiful service at the church where we will hold my Dad's memorial service on Thursday.  It is a big, beautiful old church, one my parents attended together, and praying there brought some measure of comfort and peace.  When they read my Dad's name during the prayers for the departed, I felt a kind of lightness, felt his spirit living on in all of us.

But, oh, how I missed his strong presence at my side.

We prowled around Boston, strolled through Boston Common and took in the sights.

The kids enjoyed a carousel ride, a huge gelato sundae, and a ride on Boston's famous swan boats. 

Their chocolately grins and gleeful ability to live in the moment, as they skipped through the gardens, posed for pictures on statues - all while playfully asking questions - pulled me from my reverie and deep sense of loss for a while. Kids are amazing that way.

We smile a lot, laugh with abandon, hug each other tighter. We muddle through the maelstrom of emotions that buffet us about at random. We mourn, we honor, we love.

How lucky am I to have know two such incredible Dads in my life? One that raised me, and one that is helping me raise my kids.

When we got home, there was the Sunday paper waiting on our front stoop.  My Dad's obituary, even though I knew it would be there, was a jarring reminder of the finality of his death.  

I finally allowed myself to fall apart a little. I went upstairs to our bedroom, crawled under the sheets, and wept.  And then I fell into a deep, dreamless and much-needed sleep.

A couple of hours later, Greta and Finn poked me awake with huge grins on their faces.

"Momma!  You needa come see the show! It starts in three minutes!"

I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, took a deep breath, and put a smile on my face. They led me by the hand outside, where Steve was already waiting, and put on an elaborate circus act for us on their swing set.  Finn demonstrated his patented moves:  the "Tangle", the "Bellyflop" and the "Twist".  Greta acted as ringleader, a triumphant smile on her face.  

"TA-DA!" they shouted, as they took a final bow and Steve and I clapped like mad.

And so we trudge forth, our little family, with sadness and gratitude.  And each other.

Friday, June 17, 2011


When someone is taken from you suddenly it changes everything, of course.

Here and then gone. Just like that. My mind reels, struggles to wrap itself around the word:  gone

There is an endless ticker tape running through my mind - gone, gone, gone - and it pulls my energy, my thoughts away from the present moment and back through time, as though I can rewind the clock by sheer force of will, zoom back six days to when a day was just a day and he existed somewhere in the world.

Sad is way too small a word to describe how it feels.

Future plans evaporate in the blink of an eye; time grinds to a standstill as each moment creeps by like an eternity. 

We're busy; there are lots of arrangements to make, people to call, decisions to muddle through.  I'm grateful to be in motion.   It is the worst when I pause, pull into myself and remember:  gone.

There are small periods of numbness, almost like forgetting.  I think the body and mind can only handle so much, and the brain shifts into neutral, goes on auto-pilot. 

There are also moments of intense gratitude, grace and even peace.  Even as I fully absorb the loss, I know how blessed I am.  I am one of the lucky ones, to have had a father like him. I wanted more time - OH how I wanted more time - but that longing cannot eclipse how grateful I am that he was my Dad.  Is my Dad.  He will always be my Dad.

Life trudges on. We get up in the morning, brush teeth, eat breakfast. The kids chatter about the day. Finn pulls a funny face and we all laugh.  The ticker-tape whirs on in the back of my brain - Dad, Dad, Dad - but there are school lunches to pack and homework to do and play dates to arrange.   I tiptoe from one end of the day to the other, and when the house falls silent and dark, when everyone is sleeping, I sit on the couch and I think.

I think about the last time I saw him.  It was a beautiful, sparkling day. Memorial Day.  He stood proudly by and watched Greta march in the parade. We walked thoughtfully together in the cemetery, honoring fallen soldiers. We ate sandwiches, lounged on the couch, chatting.  It was a good day. A great day.

I know now how the simple act of the phone ringing, a few uttered words on the line, can bring your world crashing down.  I feel the bewildered suddenness of it all; how someone so vibrant, so healthy and alive, can be snatched from your life without warning. 

It makes me want to hug my family tighter, make every word count.  My stomach tightens into a little ball every time we part.  Bye! Have a good day!  I chirp from the front porch as Greta trots onto the bus, Steve pulls out of the driveway or I drop Finn off at school, but grief tugs at these moments, whispering in my ear: it could be the last time you see them.

I sit on my couch and I think about the fragility of it all.  And then I think about fear. 

I don't want to live my life in fear.

I don't want to scramble to appreciate every moment out of fear that it could be a last moment. I don't want to be grateful for all that I have simply because one day it will be gone.  But how - HOW - in the face of tragedy do you shake off the fear?

I want to soak in every moment simply because it is beautiful - or horrible, or joyful, or sad - just the way it is.  I want the knowledge that it is all so fragile to bring acceptance and love into every interaction, however small.  I want to live not in the fear of dying, but in the light of being

This is the gift grief is giving me: a profound appreciation of all that is.  I tuck my kids into bed at night and I fight back the whispering voice of fear.  I bring faith into my heart and I think:  this is good.  Just the way it is.

I know now, too, that the things you remember most are the simple things.  I remember birthdays, Christmases, graduations, of course I do, but mostly?  Mostly I remember the flash of his smile, his strong hands doing dishes, the sparkle in his eyes, the funny sound he made with his mouth that made the kids laugh, and gave him his nickname:  PopPop.

Those simple things are the everyday gifts, and they are everywhere, all the time.  I will remember to look - to see - to appreciate all of it. Not with a heart full of fear, but full of gratitude. 

I will put faith before fear.  I will put faith before fear.  I will.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Shining Through

The past two days have been sad, oh so sad, surreal and heartbreaking. 

My insides feel like a bag of broken glass.  I float from moment to moment; my emotions pinwheeling from knee-buckling grief to heartfelt gratitude in the blink of an eye. 

My family and I spent the day making all the difficult decisions that surround the death of a loved one. My Dad's absence shouts at us from every corner of every room; memories flash to the surface, bringing tears and sometimes laughter. There are moments of depthless anger at the unfairness of it all. I find myself shaking my head in disbelief, uttering no, no, no under my breath. Something as simple as packing my daughter's lunch today brought a body slam of grief: when I packed her lunch on Friday my Dad was still alive.

I treasure the first moments after I open my eyes in the morning; in those precious seconds I don't remember that he's gone.  Life feels normal again until WHAM - I'm fully awake and the cloak of sorrow settles on me once again.

But just under the surface of all this pain is profound gratitude, and it sustains me through these dark days. I dip into its waters and drink thirstily, and it fills my soul with light and peace.

I am grateful for all of your words of support.  I cannot express enough how much all of your comments and emails have meant to me over the past two days. I can't respond to everyone individually, but I am reading each and every one and they are sustaining me  Truly.

I am grateful to have had him in my life as long as I did.  I am grateful for the love and support that has enveloped me and my family.  People are surfacing from everywhere, bringing hugs, food and comforting words. I always understood my Dad was beloved by everyone who knew him, but seeing the depth to which he impacted peoples' lives, seeing it flow forth from the hearts and mouths of everyone who knew him, is stunning.  And beautiful.

My Dad taught me so much in his lifetime, but the most valuable thing I learned from him is compassion.  He gave back - tirelessly - to every community he served. He believed from the bottom of his heart in helping others, and he did this by giving his time, himself, to his community, his friends, to the less fortunate.  To us. 

He taught me that you get back from the world exactly what you put into it; if you bring light, love and compassion, then you will receive it in return.  And when you do?  You give it right back again. 

My Dad made me want to be the best person I can be, and it had nothing to do with material success, social stature, pedigree or prominence, and everything to do with serving, helping and giving of yourself.

Thank you, so much, for the outpouring of support you have given me and my family. We feel your love and your prayers; they are needed, and received with very grateful hearts.

I see my Dad's spirit shining through, everywhere I look. 

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Upside Down

We're in the car, my little family and I, zooming down the highway.  Steve is driving, and I press my forehead to the passenger window glass, glad for the jarring cold of its smooth surface.  My heart is knocking in my chest, my hands are shaking, and Greta is quietly crying in the back seat.

My sister called just twenty minutes before, and said to come.  Now.  That Dad was in the hospital with some type of infection and it doesn't look good.

Doesn't look good?  Last night he was out with friends having dinner.   What do you mean, doesn't look good?

She could say no more through her tears.  In the background I hear chaos; people rushing about, shrill beeping from some type of hospital machinery.

"Just come,"  she sobs.  "I'll call you if anything happens, but you need to be here".

And so I find myself with my face against the glass, my phone perched on my lap and praying like mad that it won't ring, because I know what that would mean.

Is PopPop going to die? comes Finn's small, scared voice from the backseat.

I reach back and clutch his little hand.  I can't find any words.

We don't know, Buddy, Steve replies.

Please don't ring, please don't ring, I think. 

Outside the window the world rushes by; people drive in their cars from one place to another like it is any other day.  Rain pours from the heavens, streaking down my window like tears.  I watch the drops shimmy across the glass.  

Time slows to a crawl, and I feel each second tick by like an eternity.   I want to reach my arms out and clutch the air, grind time to a halt, bask in this small moment of not-knowing.  

My phone rings, and just like that the world turns upside down.


My Dad died yesterday from an infection that came on suddenly, and spread quickly due to complications from having his spleen removed years ago when he fought - and beat - lymphoma.  

I'm sitting here at 4:20am, unable to sleep and needing to write something, however small, in this space.  There aren't adequate words, not yet, to describe the gaping hole we're all feeling at his loss.  It was so sudden, so unexpected, that it is hard to wrap our minds around it all.

Yesterday I could have picked up the phone and called him, because he was in the world, and today I can't.  I feel him everywhere, though, and through all the pain there is an odd sense of peace, of knowing that the spirit of my Dad lives on in all of us.

But right now?  It hurts a lot.

Someday soon I may be able to talk about who he was and what he meant to all of us, but at the moment we're simply stepping gingerly from one moment to the next.  

Thank you for your thoughts and prayers.  We can feel them, and they matter.

I love you, Dad.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

In Which I Answer The Question I Get The Most

How did you do it? people who are struggling want to know.   How did you stop? 

This question makes me itchy, but it is the question I'm asked the most. 

It makes me itchy because there is no one way to get sober, and nobody is an authority on how it is done.  But just like I share my stories of drinking and addiction, hoping someone can see themselves in my words and find some measure of comfort, I realize it's okay to talk about my recovery the same way.  

I don't like giving advice.  I like sharing stories.  But on some level, I guess, they are one and the same.

Looking back on it now, I can see two main things that kept me sober even when I really didn't want to stop drinking:  talking and breaking patterns.

I found sober women.  I found them in recovery meetings - I didn't know where else to look, and I knew they would be there, so that is where I went.   A lot about meetings was completely overwhelming at first, and much of it was downright off-putting, to be honest.  But the people, OH - the people.  It was such a relief to talk to people who understood, who weren't pointing their fingers at me and asking: why did you? or how could you?  or what's wrong with you? 

I came to understand that these people were safe, that I could pour out my feelings and my truths, share the burden of my shame with them and lighten my load.  They didn't have magical answers, but they would nod their heads in empathy and understanding, and just the act of unloading made me feel light, free and hopeful.

Some people were full of advice - lots of  you should do this and you shouldn't do that.  I listened to all of it, discarded the advice that didn't work for me and embraced the advice that did. At first the advice felt crippling; I was caught up in the 'right' way to get sober, and felt like I was doing it all wrong.  Finally, one of my new good recovery friends gently pointed out that the idea was to find the way that worked for me.

"Are you drinking?" she asked.

When I replied that I wasn't, she smiled and said, "Well, then whatever you're doing is working."

Even when I wasn't sure at all why I was there, I kept going to meetings, because for all of my confusion I felt safe there, my mind quieted and I felt peaceful. So I kept going. I found the people that helped me the most and I clung to the them for dear life.  I am not a clinger, and falling back into their arms is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, but it worked.  

I talked.  A lot.  I talked wide-eyed in wonder about the all the feelings I had, the ones that I had stuffed down for so long.  I was so angry - at myself, at the fact that I was an alcoholic and couldn't drink.  I was so scared.   How was I going to navigate life without the soothing effects of wine?   These people understood why I felt that way, because they had lived it, too.  When I would ask people not in recovery how I would live without alcohol, they would blink and say, "well, just don't drink!"  

In response to the same question someone in recovery would say, "it seems impossible, doesn't it? But it is possible, although it's going to get harder before it gets easier, so hang on tight and keep on talking."

The other important part of my early recovery was breaking patterns.  I looked at my triggers and could see there were times of day, situations and feelings that always made me want to drink.   It was hard to look at my triggers, because the number one item on the list was my kids.  Admitting my kids were my biggest trigger, and having safe people to talk to about it, was the turning point in my early recovery.  

The toughest time of day was late afternoon and early evening, and I spent the first couple of months white-knuckling it, muddling through, until I followed the advice to change my patterns.  During the tough hours I would talk to another recovering alcoholic on the phone, go for a walk or lose myself in video games or mindless movies.   I had two small kids at home, so I couldn't just escape any time I wanted to, but I would pile them into the car and head to the playground at 5:30pm if I had to.   I walked in a different door of my house for a while. I rearranged furniture and I cleaned like a maniac.  It didn't matter what I did, really, as long as it helped me get out of my head for a little while.

I slept a lot.  Life was so bright, loud and chaotic, and the feelings were so pointy without the numbing effects of alcohol, that sometimes my brain would simply shut down.  It took me some time to understand that sleep was a safe way to escape, to drop away for a while, so I didn't beat myself up about it, although it freaked my family out.  Seeing me sleep at odd times of the day was a trigger for them, and with the help of other recovering people I found the words to explain to my family how I was feeling, why I needed to shut down sometimes.

But the single most important thing I did in early recovery, was get honest, both with myself and with other people.  Those things I didn't want to think about, let alone talk about?  I started thinking about them and talking about them.  I wrote in a journal, before I started this blog.  Honesty is the antidote for denial, and denial keep you stuck. 

And lastly, I stopped drinking. Such a simple thing, but it is the hardest step.

If you are trying to stop and you physically can't, get help.  Talk to a doctor, or go to rehab.  Rehab is such a nasty word, isn't it?  To me it smelled of failure, of bottom-of-the-barrel drinkers.  I wasn't expecting to find other Moms, other smart, funny, creative and interesting people who were just like me, but that's what I found.  Rehab isn't a dirty word; it is a place of healing, and it is full of people who will understand you, and get you safely sober and on the path towards recovery.

If you can physically stop but your mind goes nuts, start talking.  If you are triggered because you're irritated - be irritated.  Get to the other side of an unpleasant emotion without the numbing effect of alcohol.  Be in it, ride it out.   And then do it again and again.   Get through anger, hurt, resentment and boredom.  You can do this on your own, but it is miserable, so find safe people - ideally sober people - and start talking.

You can find sober people at meetings, or in chat rooms, or on blogs.  I get emails every week from people who say: "I've never said this to anyone before, but I think I'm an alcoholic", or "I can't stop drinking, even though I want to."   I know exactly how brave it is to admit that to yourself and to someone else, and it makes my heart soar because I know this person just broke through denial and gave themselves a fighting chance at sobriety.

Sober people are the bravest people I've ever met.  They are authentic and compassionate, and they exist in the truth.  It is a beautiful, beautiful place to live.

Come join us.  It's amazing here.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Rules According to Greta

Ah, the world of an 8 year old girl.  Here are the rules if you want entry into her room.  Can you tell she lives with a 5 year old boy?

1) NO eating.
2) NO picking your nose.
3) NO farting.
4) Don't be mean to anyone.
5) You have to like penguins and pie.
6) No parents and boys.
7) No burping.
8) Don't put Finn's BeBe (his saliva-covered blanket) on my bed.
9) No peeing and pooing.
10) No sitting in the little chair.
11) Don't say bad words.
12) If you break three rules you can never come in my room again.
13)  Have Fun!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Best Kept Secret - An Interview with Amy Hatvany

I love the internet.

It brings people into my life who I would never had had the chance to get to know otherwise, and my life is so much richer because of it.

Amy Hatvany is one of those people.

In March I wrote a review of her latest novel, Best Kept Secret.   I am not exaggerating when I say this is one of the most important novels about mothers, alcoholism and recovery ever published.  Amy writes eloquently, and with heart-wrenching honesty, about the unique struggles mothers face when they are slipping into addiction, and then trying to get sober.  If you are wondering about your drinking, or love someone who is struggling, or you are a mother who grapples with the myth of perfectionism, you must read this book.

Amy is creative, smart, funny and down-to-earth.  I am so blessed that our paths have crossed.

Her book is released tomorrow, June 7th, but you can order the book anytime by clicking HERE.   It's less than $10, and I promise you it will move you to your core.  And the ending will leave you gripping your chair in suspense. 

Full disclosure:  I have not been compensated in any way to promote Amy's book, write a review or post this interview.  I'm doing it because I loved the book and I know you'll love it, too.

And now, my interview with Amy Hatvany:

1. Have you always loved to write? What inspired you to become a published writer?

I’ve been writing since I was in second grade, and my teacher helped me put together my first book, Amy’s Animal Stories. She typed up what I had written, then bound the stories together – the cover was made out of some crazy 1970’s, bright blue wallpaper. It’s on my bookshelf at home, as a reminder of where I began, and how much I love what I do.

In terms of what inspired me to attempt to get published, I think the only word that describes what motivated me was desperation! I never really considered writing as a career – I even had a college professor tell me I’d never be published because my writing was “too emotionally informed.” But after getting my degree and not finding any happiness in the work I was doing, I decided that I would never forgive myself if I didn’t at least try to write the novel that was simmering inside me. So, I quit my job, sold my car, and sat down at the computer.

2. You're a busy Mom - how do you find the time to write? Do you have any writing rituals?

I still work a full-time day job, too, so I have to fit writing into the corners of my life. I wish I could say I’m disciplined enough to get up at 5 AM every morning, but the truth is I more tend to write in fits and starts until the story begins to take on a life of its own. Suddenly, I become obsessed with getting to the end, and putting words on the page is almost a compulsive experience. The only ritual I have is to get my butt in the chair as often as possible. I find that I’m actually more productive when I only have small stretches of time to work, like “oh, dinner is in the oven for forty-five minutes…let’s see what I can get done!”

3. Best Kept Secret draws from your personal experience as a woman in recovery; how much does Cadence's personality mirror yours?

The biggest thing Cadence and I have in common is not feeling good enough, especially as a mother. Like Cadence, I spent too many years acting “as-if” – as if I were confident, happy, secure, and peaceful with my life, when in reality, I was insecure, scared, sad, and incredibly lonely. On the surface, I was cheery and social, but I had a hard time being truly vulnerable with the people around me. I also struggled with coming to grips with the idea that I’m an alcoholic – most of my life before I spiraled into drinking was all about my success. I didn’t know how to reconcile those two sides of my identity. I tried to capture some of that emotional struggle in what Cadence goes through in the story.

4. You chose to write a fictional novel rather than a memoir; can you talk about the creative challenges of developing fictional characters and situations that are so close to home for you?

You know, I didn’t give much thought to those challenges when I started writing. I focused on the story, attempting to portray as honestly as I could the wrenching emotions behind being a mother and an alcoholic. I only thought about telling the emotional truth of the experience – and honestly, fiction provides a much broader canvas for me to do that. This is how I think of it: my personal experience is only a singular grain of sand, and I wanted to write about the beach.

5. Best Kept Secret touches a lot on the perfection pressure experienced by mothers - how we are held to societal standards that are different than men's, and how we can be tough on ourselves (and to each other), too. How much do you feel this perfectionism plays a role in mothers and drinking? Do you feel that mothers face different challenges when it comes to trying to get sober, or participate in recovery?

These are huge questions, Ellie! I could talk about my thoughts around them for hours, but I’ll make an attempt at brevity. (I’m generally mouthy, so wish me luck!) I think as women in our culture – whether or not we are mothers – we are certainly driven by perfectionism. We are told we can do it all, be it all, have it all. Of course, we can’t – at least, not “perfectly” - so I wanted to portray how as a result, many women experience profound levels of shame and self-loathing, even as we smile brightly and tell ourselves that we can’t expect to always be perfect at everything in our lives. But deep down, perhaps subconsciously, I think we still believe that we “should” be. So we reach for behaviors that drown our shame out, at least temporarily. And then we become ashamed of the behavior, and a vicious cycle emerges. I’m not just talking about alcohol, here. Eating disorders, shopping, gambling, sex - even our careers can serve as an “escape” from the pressure.

In terms of getting sober and participating in recovery, mothers definitely face a different stigma and a different set of challenges. I’m not saying it’s harder, necessarily - just different. The lens society uses to view women and mothers who suffer from alcoholism is a much different prescription than the one used for men.

When I first got into recovery, I couldn’t even speak aloud about the fact that I had been drunk in front of my kids. And I didn’t hear other women talking about it, either. The shame we struggle with is so unwieldy, and learning to forgive ourselves – learning that we are worthy of that forgiveness in the face of society’s moral judgments against us – can be a rocky road to travel. The good news is that we don’t have to do it alone.

6. You are open about your own recovery from alcoholism. What made you decide to do this? Have there been any surprising positive or negative effects on your life because of it?

I wasn’t always so open about it! In the beginning, I was too filled with shame and self-disgust to talk about it, even with people who understood. It took time for me to work up the courage to speak the truth about my experiences, and now, I have chosen to be forthright because I believe that the only way to erase the painful stigma assigned to women who are mothers and are in recovery is to hold my head high and be honest about what I went through to become the woman I am today. Did I screw up? Yep. Did I learn from the experience and use it to practice becoming a wiser person every day? You bet.

I’ve had far more positive response than negative for sharing about my experiences. The subject of mothers and alcoholism is so taboo – and it makes me so happy when I get an email from someone who thanks me for broaching a subject they’ve lived alone with for so long. It also means the world to me when a family member of an addict/alcoholic writes me and says that after reading my book, they finally understand how their loved one felt in the midst of their addiction. Such a humbling experience to hear those words, and I’m incredibly grateful for it.

Of course, I’ve been criticized for my openness, too, but the fact is that there are no rules or “governing” agency for recovery. It’s a personal choice to share with others, and I absolutely respect those who chose to remain anonymous. I don’t speak for any one “brand” of recovery – I’m not a spokesperson or a preacher. I’m simply a woman who has made the personal decision to share my story in the hopes that another woman might feel less alone and perhaps find a way out of the dark place she’s living within.

7. What advice would you give a mother struggling with drinking?

I’m not a big one for giving advice, especially to someone who is struggling with drinking, but I can say that once I opened my mind to the idea that I didn’t have to figure out the issue on my own, my life began to get infinitely better. In my experience, there are no rules to follow in recovery, just gentle suggestions made by people who have stood in the same place as me. There is no judgment. There is acceptance and understanding and so much love and laughter. If you know someone in recovery, take the chance. Talk with them. There is no pressure to conform. There is only hope that you might find your way out of the dark.

8. What advice would you give a busy mother who dreams of publishing a book someday?

Stop dreaming and start writing!

9. What do you hope readers will take away from this novel?

Overall, I hope that women, especially, are able to see the similarities they share with Cadence, rather than the differences. I hope that the story widens the readers’ understanding and compassion, and perhaps makes them re-evaluate any preconceptions they might hold about women who suffer from alcoholism and mothers who don’t have primary custody of their children.

I also hope that any woman in the throes of active addiction sees herself in Cadence’s story and finds the courage it takes to reach out for help.

For me, that’s the inherent beauty of books – each person will walk away with something different from a story. My hope as an author is that readers will find a need met, perhaps one they weren’t aware they had to fill.

For more about Amy, you can follow her on twitter here, or like her facebook page here.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


Recently I've gotten several emails from women who are wondering about their drinking, and they all say the same thing:  I don't know where I fit.

These are women who haven't lost anything; they still have their jobs, their families, their health.  They haven't been arrested; indeed many of them are surrounded by family and friends who don't think they have a drinking problem at all.

But they know something isn't right, and they are beginning to suspect their drinking is at the root of it all.

Many of them say they have tried a recovery meeting or two, and they feel like they don't belong as they listen to others' tales of woe.  I'm not that bad, they think.  And they are right.  They aren't that bad.  Yet.

One woman put it beautifully when she said she feels caught in purgatory; she knows she doesn't drink socially, like most of her friends, but she doesn't feel 'bad enough' to attend recovery meetings.  She said she felt like she doesn't fit in anywhere.

My opinion - and bear in mind this is my opinion only - is that they are caught up in what I call emotional addiction.  They aren't addicted to alcohol; in fact they can go for a few days at a time and not drink.  Physical addiction to alcohol takes emotional addiction to a scary new level; you get to the point where you have to drink.  If you don't drink you start to sweat, tremble or shake, or you are hit with crippling anxiety.  Sometimes all four.  When you are physically addicted to alcohol you start drinking without your own permission, desperate for relief from these uncomfortable symptoms.

Emotional addiction comes with its own discomfort, but these symptoms can be easy to miss, because they feel like all the reasons most people drink - to relax, to unwind, as a reward for a hard day, to be more social.

When I was emotionally addicted - before I had to drink - my days started to revolve around thoughts of a drink.   I would wake up in the morning feeling achy and hungover, most days, and a few cups of coffee or a brisk morning walk would clear my head and set my resolve:  not tonight.  I'm not going to drink tonight.

By three or four o'clock, though, the tape in my head had changed:  just one. Only one drink tonight.

I hated the witching hour - the hours between 5pm and 8pm - when dinner, dishes, bathtimes and bedtimes collided with cranky kids and a tired husband.   For working Moms just coming home from their job these hours are a whirlwind of activity laced with guilt that these crazy hours are the only times they see their husband, or their children, during the week.  

All I wanted to was to unwind, relax, make these hours more palatable.  A drink - or two, or three - provided instant relief from existential itchiness and guilt.

By six o'clock a drink felt like my God-given right, dammit, for making it through another long day.  I was careful while the kids were awake, but as soon as they were tucked into their beds I would head downstairs for just one more that inevitably turned into more than one.

I would wake up the next morning, achy and contrite, and the cycle would begin again.

Sometimes something would happen - an alcohol fueled fight with my husband, or an embarrassing call to a friend, and I would resolve not to drink for a while. I would usually succeed for a few days, but when the witching hours arrived my subconscious was still preoccupied with the not-drinking.  Here's me not drinking, I'd think with a mixture of pride and longing.  I was irritable, edgy and short with the kids.  Eventually a drink seemed like a good idea, if only to get my fun-loving, relaxed self back.

I started keeping a mental list in my head of all the reasons I couldn't be heading for a drinking problem (I never, ever said the "A word" - alcoholic - even to myself).  I had thriving children, a good job, many friends.  I didn't blackout (back then I didn't know the definition of a "grey-out", when memories get fuzzy or full of gaps), and I didn't drive drunk (driving after having a few didn't count, in my book, because everyone does that, right?).   I stopped with no problem at all during my pregnancies.  I was athletic, social and active.

I missed a big signpost: people who aren't developing a drinking problem don't walk around with lists in their heads about why they can't possibly have a drinking problem.  

I lived in this purgatory for years.   When I'm honest with myself I can see signs of a problem as far back as my twenties, when I would rally co-workers for a drink after work as often as possible. I never, ever attended events that didn't involve alcohol. I was usually the first person to arrive and the last to leave.

I can look back now and see where I crossed the line between emotional addiction and physical addiction.  It was subtle, quiet, sneaky.  There were no arrests or embarrassing moments at a party.   Somewhere along the line I stopped questioning myself about my drinking.  I became too afraid to try to stop - even for short bits of time - because I didn't want to learn that I couldn't.   I surrendered to denial. 

I'm talking about all this because I know, now, that emotional addiction will - always - lead to phsycial addiction eventually.  It may take years, like it did for me, but the elevator only goes one way:  down.

There is good news, though.  Because of the internet, more and more women are exploring their drinking from the safe distance of the other side of their computer monitor.  They are joining chat rooms, reading blogs, forming communities where they don't have to fear running into someone at the grocery store the next day.

Women are starting to get honest with themselves before the physical addiction kicks in, when they are in that purgatory where they know in their gut that their drinking is a problem, but they aren't about to go to a recovery meeting.  Not yet.

Getting sober when you're emotionally addicted to alcohol is hard.   It is a lot like dieting; how many of us wait until we're visibly overweight to lose those extra pounds?  How many of us wait until our health is at risk before we buckle down and do something about it?   How many of us lose those extra ten pounds, over and over, without really committing to a lifetime of healthy eating and exercise?

It's like that for people who are emotionally addicted to alcohol.   We stop for brief periods of time, convince ourselves we don't have a problem, and scratch our heads in bewilderment when months - or weeks - later we're right back where we started, or worse.

There is hope, though.   If you're reading this blog, or Crying Out Now, or joining chat rooms for people trying to stop drinking - GOOD FOR YOU.  If you are listening to that niggling voice that tells you drinking is a problem, one that is getting worse, and reaching out to talk to others who understand - you have all my admiration and respect. 

It is nearly impossible to make any meaningful changes in your drinking, in your life, alone.  So don't be alone; go find the people who understand.  We're everywhere, if you're looking in the right place.

Some people believe getting sober online isn't 'real' sobriety, and that recovery meetings are the only way to maintain meaningful sobriety. I believe, too, that to succeed long term you will need a network of support and understanding in your 'real' life, because virtual friends can only take you so far.  But if getting honest through the relative anonymity of the computer screen helps you take those first few brave  - and terrifying - steps towards recovery, I'm all for it.

At Crying Out Now there is a blogroll of sober bloggers, or bloggers trying to get sober.  Go check them out.  Look for your story in their stories.   Join the Booze Free Brigade - now over 840 members strong - and reach out to people; don't sit silently reading.  Go tell your story - type out your thoughts and fears and be surrounded by empathy and understanding.

I try not to live in regret, but I will always, always wish that I had the courage to explore my drinking when I was in purgatory.  I knew the resources were out there, but I was too scared to look.

Don't wait until physical addiction kicks in, because you won't see it coming, and although purgatory is bad, physical addiction is hell.

So please, go look.