Sunday, August 28, 2011


I've been thinking about the 'click' lately.

Maybe you know the one?  After you've had a drink, or two, and life just seems to click into place?  The edges get all warm and fuzzy, you love everyone and everything, and boredom and anxiety feel like distant memories?

Yeah, that click.

It is Friday night, and we are hanging out at our beach camp, lounging on the porch and watching the sun go down.  The neighborhood has gathered on someone's porch for drinks, and they are having a grand old time.  The sounds of laughter and clinking glasses permeate the air, and I listen wistfully.

I have that sun drenched, salty feeling; the one that goes so well with a smooth glass of wine. 

My back is sore - I threw it out again early last week - and the kids are clamoring for dinner. The thought of sweating over the grill, or the stove, makes me tired right down to my bones.  Oh, how I want that click.  It would ease my back pain, make the idea of cooking dinner seem palatable, I think.

To distract myself, I go for a little walk, up to the lighthouse on the point next to our cottage.  I sit and listen to the birds, feel the cool evening breeze on my face.  

I think about all the women I have met recently - either in person or through emails - who are brand new to sobriety, or who are struggling to get sober.

This is why it's so hard, I think, to stay away from that first drink.  Nothing beats that click, not really.  It's the antidote to boredom, a prescription for instant relaxation.  

I take deep breaths, feel my lungs inflate with the fresh air.  In.  Out.  Think it through, Ellie. 

The difference between me and a normal drinker is that the click is just the beginning for me.  

Normal drinkers ride that warm feeling, have a drink or two and coast along on happy, relaxed sociability.  They milk the click for all it's worth, but for them it stops there.

I was born without an off switch.  Once I hit the click, I no longer control how much I will drink.  It has always been that way.  

I remember how I tried everything - everything - to get to the click and stay there.  I tried only drinking beer. Or wine. I tried only drinking on weekends, or only when I was out with friends.  Even if I only drank on occasion, there was no telling where I'd end up once I started.  Sometimes I could control it, and for years I thought only about those times when I was able to rein it in, stop at the click.   There were only a few examples to choose from, but I kept them close at hand, and discarded all the evidence to the contrary.

With a sigh, I turn and head back to the cottage, a heavy feeling in my bones. I miss it, I think.  And that's okay.  Ride it out.  It will pass.  It always does. 


Later that evening, after the dishes are washed up and dessert devoured, we settle down at the kitchen table to work on a 550 piece puzzle.  The only light comes from a portable gas lantern, and it casts a warm glow over the kids' faces, like a campfire.

"It's family puzzle night!" Greta grins.

Finn furrows his brow, looking for one certain piece.  When he finds it his face lights up: "I FOUND it, Momma!  That makes FWEE pieces for me!"

I would have missed this, I think. I would have gone into numbness, there-but-not-there, my mind distracted by whether it would be okay to pour another drink.

Greta leans her head on my shoulder, "I love family puzzle night," she says with a contented sigh.

And, all of a sudden, there it is: I'm content, relaxed.  I'm happy.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

How It Works - One Year Later

I wrote the post below exactly one year ago today, hoping with all my heart that she would grab recovery with both hands and hang on tight.  And boy, did she ever.  Here we are, one year later, and she has done so much hard work on herself, inspired me on a daily basis and helped so many people. 

It has been an honor to be part of her journey so far. 

Happy Anniversary, Amanda.  One day at a time we can do this, my friend.  I love you.

THIS.  This is how it works:

August 24, 2010

I know a woman with kind eyes and a lion's heart.

She's a touch-stone, a soul mate; being with her feels as natural to me as my own skin.    It's a finish-each-other's-sentences kind of friendship, a lifetime of late night giggles, whispered secrets and knowing smiles.

We prop each other up, leaning steadily and sturdily on one another through soaring joys and crushing blows.  

When I'm with her it's like two puzzle pieces clicking into place - separately we are colorful and interesting, but together the picture feels complete.

Over the years our paths have serpentined away from each other and back again, winding and twisting along different paths as lives do, but always orbiting the gravitational pull of our twin heartbeat.


One night, a little over three years ago, I called her.  I was drunk, scared, alone and desperate for her love, understanding and friendship.   "I'm in trouble," I told her.  "Please come."

She'll understand, I thought.  She'll know why I drink; we're two halves of a whole, after all.   She'll tell me I'm okay.

An hour later she arrived, eyes blazing with love and pain, but with a determined set to her jaw.   She marched into the kitchen and poured out all the booze, bottle by bottle.   Then she turned to me and told me the hard truth:  I had a problem, I needed to stop, I needed to get help.

It was not what I was expecting her to say, not at all.    I knew in my gut, for the first time ever, that she spoke the truth.   I needed to stop, and I needed to get help. 

She stayed with me that night, and in the morning as she left she hugged me and said, "You can do this, El.  I love you."

That day I checked into my first rehab.   My journey had begun.


Today, as we stood trembling and teary in the intake area of the treatment center, my eyes were ablaze with the same determined love. 

"You can do this," I said to her as we hugged.  "I love you."

I opened her hand and pressed a little bronze medallion into her palm.   Etched into it is the Serenity Prayer:  God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.   It was given to me at one of my first recovery meetings by a woman I don't know, and haven't seen again.   She had many, many years of sobriety, and told me she wanted me to have it.   For strength, she said.

"This was given to me when I was new," I whispered to my friend, through tears.   "And now I'm giving it to you."  

Our eyes locked, and for an instant we were little girls again, finding our way through life together, always together.

Her journey is just beginning.   But someday?   I hope and pray that  she will give it to someone else.   She will pay it forward.

Because that's how it works.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Awkward Birds

"Mom? Will you brush my hair?"

The question takes me by surprise; usually if I come within four feet of her head with a hairbrush, Greta runs away screaming.

"Sure, honey," I reply, smiling.  "I love it when you let me play with your hair."

We sit thoughtfull for a few minutes, while I work out the summer snarls. She loves to wear it loose and flowing around her shoulders, but it's so long now it tangles quickly.  In the summer it's a battle that isn't worth fighting, the please-lets-cut-your-hair-no-I-won't-I-hate-how-I-look-in-short-hair fight we have dozens of times during the school year.

"Do you know why I want you to brush my hair out?" Greta asks, quietly.  "Because I want to look like the teenagers on those posters."

My stomach gives a little tug of fear.  "Which posters?" I ask, keeping my voice neutral.

"The ones in Target?  In the shampoo section?  Their hair is so shiny. And wavy. Why isn't my hair wavy?"

I know the posters she means; they are all over the store. Oversized homages to perfection: teensy women in bikinis in the bathing suit section, dewy complected women in the facial cream aisle. And shiny-curled teens in the shampoo section.  I caught her staring at those posters the last time we were there, while I perused the wrinkle creams.  She gazed intently at the beaming teenagers, with their full heads of bouncy waves, before running her hand self-consciously through her own hair. 

The irony that my daughter was being drawn in by those posters while I searched in vain for a cream that would instantly take ten years off my face didn't escape me, but I left it alone.

"Your hair is beautiful. What's not to love about the Chocolate Waterfall?"  I say with a smile, using our pet name for her hair, which falls - stick straight - all the way down her back. It is an impossible deep, rich, dark brown.

"It's just that is doesn't have any curls," she pouts.  "How do those Target girls get such pretty curls?"

We have the same talk we've had before, about how she is perfect just the way she is, but I can tell that I'm losing the battle to peer pressure and glitzy media campaigns.   It breaks my heart a little to know that as young as eight, girls are already picking apart their own bodies, holding themselves up against unattainable perfection.

It makes me afraid.  Lately, as she steps out of the shower, Greta will stick her belly out comically far, and ask "What would you say if my belly looked like this?  Would you tell me I'm fat?"

Fat isn't a word we have ever used in our house. Even during my diet, we carefully avoided the f-word. I try my best not to let her see me gazing critically at my own body.  I never let her hear me disparage my own looks.  But who am I kidding?  I fall for the same ideals she does.  Why else would I spend so much on wrinkle creams?

She will run her hand over her impossibly tight, muscular belly, and tell me her stomach isn't as flat as so-and-so's.  

I swallow my fear and ask her what she means.  "My friend Melissa talks about how fat her tummy is all the time.  But her stomach is smaller than mine, so I must be fat, too?"

Oh, God, I think.  It's starting. 

"I want to show you something," I say.  We sit down at my laptop and Google "air brushing before and after".  Her mouth drops open as she points and says, "LOOK!  They made her neck longer!  And her boobs are bigger! And her butt is smaller!" 

It's a slippery slope, though.  Even as I part the curtain and show her what goes on behind the scenes to create images of perfection designed to make us feel badly about ourselves so we'll buy more product, I'm showing her that the world values long necks, big boobs and small butts.

"Do you think these women look better like that?" I ask.

She stares at the pictures for a while.  "No," she says, firmly. "They look too skinny. And like big, awkward birds or something."

"We'll have to keep talking about this," I say.  "Women spend a lot of time thinking about how they look. I do it sometimes, too. Instead of appreciating all that is beautiful about our bodies, we pick it apart. I hope you will keep talking to me about how you feel about yourself, even if you know I'm always going to tell you you are beautiful just the way you are."

She nods. "Is that why you always say that?  Because you want me to be happy about myself, and not sad?"

"Yes," I smile. "There are all these images our there that just aren't real, and it makes me sad that they can make us feel like somehow we aren't beautiful because we don't look like something that never existed in the first place."


Later, we're walking in the mall.  As we pass the Victoria's Secret store, she points to the life-size and scantily clad advertisement hanging in the front window and says, "Look, Mom!!  False Advertising!!!'

Score one for Mom.

Monday, August 15, 2011

1,459 Days - Who I See

She looks back at me with desperation and defiance shining in her eyes.

Somewhere, deep down inside, she knows it's over, but that fact scares her too much, so she hangs onto anger like a shield - a force field - to deflect this hard truth.

She doesn't look like herself, not at all like the woman she pictures in her head, the woman she was for so many years.  Her pretty ivory skin is blotchy and bloated, and she can see the beginnings of tiny, pink burst capillaries on her cheeks.  She remembers that these are called gin blossoms, and her stomach churns with shame.

There is a slight tremor in her hands; these days it appears if she goes mere hours without a drink.  She is vaguely scared at this idea, but not nearly as scared as she is of stopping.  She cannot imagine life without alcohol.

I can't give it up, she thinks.  It is the only thing holding me together. 

Slowly, she ticks through the list she carries in her head - a careworn and dog-eared list of all the reasons she can't possibly be an alcoholic.   It's a familiar mantra by now, and it is sounding thin even to her own ears.

The other list - the one she tries not to think about - is getting longer.  She pictures the nearly constant disgusted anger in her husband's eyes.   She remembers her five year-old daughter's desperate pleas - but Momma, you're ALWAYS sleeping - when requests to read a story or play a game are met with a muffled grunts from beneath the sheets.

She looks back at me and begs me to tell her that she will figure it out, that she will get a handle on her drinking, that she isn't that bad.

Slowly, the defiance drains from her face, and she is left with only desperation.  The hard truth lands on her like a stone:  you're going to lose everything.  You're an alcoholic and you need help. 


That woman was me, 1,459 days ago, the day I had my last drink.   My husband had just told me I would be heading back to rehab - again - and that he didn't care what happened to me after that.  I was sinking, he told me, and he was done.  He said he wouldn't let me drag the whole family down with me.

So the afternoon of August 16, 2007 I found myself staring at my own reflection in the mirror, desperate to hang onto the one thing that was ripping my life apart.   The chasm between the way I presented myself to the world and the way I felt on the inside had finally opened up and swallowed me whole.   It happened quickly.   I began the summer with swaggering promises to get help, go to meetings, to stop drinking.   All those promises did was drive my drinking deeper underground.  I drank on the way to meetings.  I drank on the way home.  I popped breath mints and drank coffee to disguise the odor on my breath.   I spun flimsy webs full of lies, but the only person I was fooling was myself.

In two months I was hospitalized twice and attended two rehabs - one inpatient and one outpatient.  I listened to the advice I got, to the stories I heard in meetings and from fellow patients.   I wrote copiously in my journal, determined to get a handle on my drinking.  I did everything but the one thing I had to do to have a fighting chance at getting sober.  

I didn't surrender.

I still believed that there must be something I could do to drink like a normal person. I thought I needed to be stronger, to fight harder, to resist the temptation to keep drinking after one or two.   I really believed if I tried hard enough, I would be okay.

In the course of two months my world fell apart, and I stubbornly clung to my right to drink, even as I hurt the people I loved the most.  I was so scared.  All the time.  Scared to keep drinking, and scared to stop.

On August 16, 2007 I looked at my reflection in the mirror and I saw a bloated, desperate shell of my former self.  Unshowered, trembling and alone in the world, I finally hit bottom.  

I gave up.  I went back to rehab - thirty days this time - and I got out of my own way.

Take it, I prayed to whatever-might-be-out-there, take what happens to me out of my stubborn hands.


Today I gazed at my reflection in the mirror and thought about the journey so far.

The face looking back at me is thinner, the crinkly laugh lines around my eyes are more prominent.  There is a steely determination in my eyes, as well as an impish glint that wasn't there before.

The woman I see is strong, self-confident, determined.  I like her a lot.  I've only known her for three years, now - the first year of sobriety was full of anxiety and fear.  But slowly, she emerged from the darkness, wove her way into my day-to-day life.  Each day without a drink she grew stronger. 

The woman in the mirror is also vulnerable.  Her emotions ripple right beneath the surface, now that they aren't anesthetized by alcohol and denial.  She feels things more strongly: she hurts more deeply, but she loves harder than ever before.

I meet my own gaze and whisper:  I love you.

And I do. Not an egotistical I'm-better-than-you love, but a gentle, accepting, motherly kind of love.  I treat myself with the same kindness I do others. I have to, because when my disease comes knocking it tells me that I don't measure up, that I need to hide from fear, to anesthetize boredom and anxiety.  

I spent years erasing myself from the picture, lost in shame and fear.  Every day without a drink I draw those lines back in - with confident strokes and bold colors.

I like what I see.  Finally.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Middle of Me

I'm standing stock still amid throngs of people.   The DJ's music is blasting, women clad head to toe in sparkles whirl around me, laughing, clutching their drinks.

On the dance floor hundreds of people gyrate to the pulsing music.  I'm at Sparklecorn, a notoriously raucous party held on the second night of BlogHer.

I don't know how this celebration of frivolity has become a place where I experience epiphanies, but it has.  Last year at Sparklecorn I danced sober for the first time

This year my good friend and sober running-mate, Heather, is back in the room tending to her adorable two month old daughter, Elsie.  Heather's need to be with Elsie has kicked me out from under the safe protection of her wing, forced me to spread my own wings and try to fly solo.

I debated for a long time if I should even go to Sparklecorn.   I have always been someone who likes to be in the middle of everything, and I was puzzled that I didn't feel more of a compulsion to go.  My fear was that I would feel left out, other-than, sober and serious amongst all the party-goers.  I wasn't in a particularly fun mood.  I was tired from the time change, and my feet hurt from walking all day.  On some ancient level it felt cowardly not to try, so I squared my shoulders, donned a sparkly top, and set out for the party. 

I didn't know if I would be brave enough to enter the party alone, but thankfully I ran into some friends on the way over, and we walked in together. 

Somehow I become separated from my friends.  I find myself standing alone, on the outskirts of the dance floor, clutching my club soda and cranberry.

Here I am, experiencing one of my worst fears, I think.   I'm alone, sober, in a room full of people who seem so fluid, so relaxed, so lubricated. 

I wait for the fear, for that stomach-churning feeling that I am no longer fun, that I don't fit anymore, because I can't drink.

It doesn't come.

I sip my drink and observe the room, bopping my head slightly to the music.  Everywhere I look I see people I know, good bloggy friends, waving their arms over their heads and gyrating to the beat. 

Good for them, I think.  I'm so glad they are letting off steam, having fun. 

I realize I have a choice - if I want to be included, all I have to do was step into the circle and start dancing.  Nobody is shunning me, nobody is deliberately leaving me out. 

I'm tired, I think.  I want to go back to the room. 

I realize, with some surprise, that I really do want to go back to the room. I'm not running away.  I'm not fearful of missing out on something.  I don't need to be in the middle of anything.

I'm my own middle, I think with a smile.

This seems like such a small thing, but for me it is huge.  For so many years I searched  for the center of me outside of myself - in throngs of dancing people, from the validation I thought I received from other people accepting me, inviting me in.  My ticket to entry was a drink, or two, or five.  Alcohol greased the skids, propelled me into confidence, manufactured a feeling of belonging. 

I set down my drink and wander out of the party, onto an outdoor balcony under the stars.   I close my eyes and breathe in the cool night air.  

I am free, I think.  I am free of the self-centered fear of rejection. 

I don't have that nose-pressed-against-the-glass feeling anymore.  I don't know when it went away, but I am so very grateful it is gone.

Without looking back, the two of us - my middle and me - head back to the room.

Monday, August 1, 2011

How To Prepare for A Blogging Conference In 44 Easy Steps

In less than 48 hours I'm going to BlogHer in San Diego. 

I have been to a grand total of three blogging conferences now - this one makes my fourth - and I'm starting to notice a trend in my pre-conference weirdness preparations.  For any of you attending your first conference, I thought it may be helpful to share them with you:


1) Make a well organized and lucid checklist of everything to bring to the conference.


1) Lose checklist.


1) Gaze thoughtfully into mirror and notice self for the first time since the last conference.
2) Frantically call every hairdresser in town to schedule an appointment to foil hair.  
3) Buy expensive wrinkle cream.
4) Open cosmetic travel bag and find exact same cream purchased for last conference.
5) Stare into closet with glazed expression. Search for perfect outfit to present sleek, put-together look.
6) Realize you do not own one single "outfit". 
7) Drag unhappy children to trendy boutique.  Pay too much for sexy top. 
8) Hang sexy top next to last year's sexy top, which was never worn because it didn't feel like you.
9) Remember you are recovering people-pleaser and tell self people will have to accept you for who you are.  You are YOU.  You are authentic.
10) Notice wardrobe contains only black pants, black Capris, black shorts and earth tone tops. Wonder if you really have to be that authentic.
11) Apply wrinkle cream before bed.


1) Wake up and generously apply wrinkle cream.
2) Stare into closet with glazed expression.
3) Call blogging friend to talk about how you really should be packing.
4) Drag unhappy kids back to boutique to purchase trendy, uncomfortable shoes to draw attention away from black pants and earth tone tops.
5) Engage in pre-flying obsessive/compulsive thinking.
6) Kiss the kids goodnight and attempt to ignore thoughts of a fiery plane crash death.
7) Call blogging friend to talk about how you really should be packing.
8) Try on pointy uncomfortable shoes.
9) Fall down.
10) Stay up too late writing a blog post about going to blogging conferences.
11) Apply wrinkle cream.


1) Open empty suitcase.
2) Remember all the laundry is dirty. 
3) Start laundry. 
4) Call blogging friend to talk about how you really should be packing.
5) Take clean clothes from dryer and stuff into suitcase.
6) Pack enough shoes for a one month stay.
7) Ponder luggage weight limit.  Shrug and leave everything in suitcase.
8) Apply wrinkle cream generously.
9) Get into bed and lie with eyes open until alarm goes off.


1) Apply wrinkle cream.
2) Fend off flying jitters with thoughts of how much more talented/funny/popular everyone else is than you.
3) Totter off plane in trendy, uncomfortable shoes.
4) Purchase band-aids for blisters.
5) Enter hotel wearing mask of bored self-confidence.
6) Flee to room and apply wrinkle cream.
7) Stare with glazed expression at clothes in suitcase.
8) Try on sexy top. 
9) Discard sexy top and pointy shoes.
10) Wear black pants, earth tone top and sensible shoes.
11) Take deep breath.
12) Enter conference with mask of bored self-confidence.
13) See a friend.
14) Realize it is all going to be okay.