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Roar Softly and Carry a Great Lipstick
28 Women Writers on Life, Sex, and Survival
By Autumn Stephens
Inner Ocean PublishingCopyright © 2004 Autumn Stephens
All rights reserved.
The person who tries to live alone will not succeed as a human being. His heart withers if it does not answer another heart. His mind shrinks away if he hears only the echoes of his own thoughts and finds no other inspiration.
— Pearl S. Buck
I knew by the time I was twenty that I was an alcoholic, even though I was not quite sure what that meant: Dylan Thomas said an alcoholic was someone you don't like who drinks as much as you do. I thought I was a good alcoholic, mostly pleasant, maybe too affectionate after a few drinks, perhaps a little loud sometimes or weepy, but not a burden to anyone except myself. I liked being an alcoholic; I liked drinking and getting high or drunk with other people like me — I thought of us as being like everyone else, only more so. More alive. Deeper. More in touch with — with what? With spirit — our own — and with spirits: of the times, of humanity ... and all sorts of other bullshit we tell ourselves when we have lost the ability to control our drinking.
One day in 1985, I woke up so hungover that I felt pinned to the bed by centrifugal force. I was in the sleeping loft of my little houseboat in Sausalito. The sun was pouring in and the birds were singing and I was literally glued to my pillow by drool. I decided to quit drinking. And I was doing quite well, remarkably well, in fact, until five o'clock that first night. Then the panic set in. Thankfully, I had a moment of clarity in which I understood that the problem was not that I drank so much but that I drank too quickly. The problem was with pacing. So I had a good idea. I would limit myself to two beers a night. Two beers! What a great idea.
I went to the market, which was one block away, and got two beers — two beers, sort of. What I bought were two sixteen-ounce Rainier Ales. Now Rainier Ale is fortified — it's the beer with the merest hint of raw alcohol added. It is to beer as Night Train is to wine. Winos love it, as do people from Bolinas, which is where I learned to appreciate it. It gets you very drunk very quickly, and it's cheap. What's not to love?
Okay, maybe the taste. Not all people happen to love the taste of rye bread soaked in goat urine. I myself don't mind it.
I took the two Rainier Ales home, and I drank one. I got a little high, but it was only 5:30. And I realized I was going to have to make the second sixteen-ounce Rainier Ale last until bedtime. So after I put on my thinking cap, I realized that if I was going to pace myself successfully, I might need a little ... supplement.
Luckily I had a Nike box full of prescription pills. I have had a number of warm personal relationships with pharmacists over the years. Also, perhaps, like many female alcoholics, tiny boundary issues. So I was warm and personal with them and they would give me speed and Valium. Anyway, I took one blue Valium that night — so little, so helpless, smaller even than a Tic Tac — and washed it down with part of the second sixteen-ounce Rainier Ale. Twenty minutes later I began to feel better, a little calmer. More whole. More like God.
Then I drank the rest of the Rainier Ale and discovered that now it was only 6:30. So I smoked a little dope and took another Valium, listened to "Layla" five times, and then had a second moment of clarity: it was wonderful to want to pace yourself, but two beers a night? I mean, let's not overreact. So I went back to the market and got a third sixteen-ounce Rainier Ale and sipped it. I had to take one more tiny blue Valium, and then a Halcion, which is a sleeping pill that they have banned in most civilized countries because of unpleasant side effects. For instance, it makes you feel like killing people.
So I was able to fall asleep that night at a nice early hour, like 7:30, and I slept like a baby and woke up twelve hours later, completely refreshed. Wow! I thought. This is fantastic: no hangover, no being glued to the pillow by drool. I felt like a million dollars. Whenever people called that morning and asked how I was, I said I felt great, which was true, and that I was on the wagon, which I believed I was, in the reform sense of the phrase.
At five that night, I went back to the market and bought three sixteen-ounce Rainier Ales. I bounced back to my house, Mary Lou Retton–like, sipped the first ale, took the Valium, smoked a joint, drank the second ale, took another Valium, listened to "Into the Mystic" ten times, drank the third ale, took the Valium and the Halcion, and discovered two unhappy facts. One was that it was only seven o'clock. The second was that I was wide awake.
Ah, I thought, here's the problem: every so often perhaps, I may need one extra beer. But I am going to sip that darned beer. So I walked to the market, a little slowly perhaps, because I was concentrating very hard on not falling over. Because that would certainly indicate that there was a problem. But I made it to the market. I bought one more sixteen-ounce Rainier Ale, and tightrope-walked back to the houseboat, where I sipped the ale, took another Valium, listened to the Duane Allman riff in "Layla" a few more times, fell asleep, and woke up twelve hours later feeling totally great.
By the fifth day, though, after drinking the first of my sixteen-ounce Rainier Ales, I began to resent anyone's attempts to control me — even my own. And so, as an act of liberation, I bought a fifth of Bushmills Irish Whiskey and had drunk it all by dawn.
It only took me one more year to admit that I could no longer control my drinking. And finally, on July 7, 1986, I quit, and let a bunch of sober alcoholics teach me how to get sober, and stay sober.
God, they were such a pain in the ass.
Let me put it this way: I didn't love sobriety at first. I thought maybe I could find a few loopholes in the basic premise of abstinence. Maybe, I thought, after a few months of sobriety, you could successfully smoke marijuana again, or maybe every anniversary you got to have one glass of a perfectly chilled California Chardonnay.
It turned out that there were not going to be any loopholes. The people who seemed to find loopholes were showing signs of failure; for instance, they were shooting themselves in the head. Over time, two of my best sober friends, thinking they'd found loopholes, shot themselves in the head and died. This got my attention.
I was, in early sobriety, too sensitive almost to live. I was like someone with psychic tinnitus; every sound or word was amplified to the point of causing me pain. The wrong whisper could pierce me like a dog whistle. Because I had not had time to develop any real self-esteem — it had been a while since I had acted in a consistently estimable way — I found offense everywhere. For instance, early on I heard a sober person say, "Religion is for people who are afraid of hell; spirituality is for people who have been there," and all I could hear was an attack on religion, on my religion. I couldn't hear that the person was saying that I had already gone to the most terrifying place, to the land of obsessive self-loathing, egomania, and decay, but that now, like a battered explorer, I was bravely trying to find my way home.
I was angry for a long time. I didn't know why these annoying people wanted to help me or why they seemed to love me even though I was whiny and arrogant and defeated all at once, the classic egomaniac with an inferiority complex. I finally figured it out, although I could not have put it as well as my pre-teen son, Sam, did last night. He was watching King Kong, the remake with Jessica Lange, and toward the end, he said, "She loves him because she can see that he's lonely."
And that is why they loved me and helped me become one of them when I grew up. Sometimes I feel that they're like the clumsy deadpan kids in Peanuts, with their sayings and slogans — like Pig Pen, blinky and dense, or Linus and Schroeder. But I love to listen to them tell their stories of ruin; I'm a sucker for a good resurrection story. And I love to hear of their efforts not to see what was as plain as day. I have a doctor friend, for instance, who used to shoot up sodium pentothal in his garage and then make a run for the bedroom, where he could pass out for the night; he was convinced he had a problem with insomnia, not drugs. I have a friend who could admit he was an alcoholic but then one day had to have surgery to remove pebbles from his forehead; the tiny stones got embedded while he was smashing his face against the pavement at the end of a cocaine binge. Telling me about his operation, he said with enormous hostility, "Now every-one's going to think I have a drug problem."
I love these stories because they show where we began, and therefore how far we have come, from the blame and delusions of our drinking days to the gentle illusions by which we stay sober. Now we understand that the blanket really does protect Linus and that Schroeder really does play lovely music on a toy piano, because both of them keep at it. They believe.
Without Me, I'm Nothing
When the telltale blue line showed up on the little white strip, telling me I was pregnant, I sat on the edge of the toilet seat and began crying, seriously crying — not the gushing, "Honey, I have wonderful news for you" kind of tears, but "Holy mother of god, what have I done?" tears.
I should, perhaps, have taken this as a warning sign, the loud clang- clang-clang that precedes all train wrecks. But I didn't. I figured that ambivalence — even stomach-churning, appetite-losing ambivalence — was not that weird or unusual. After all, I was thirty-eight, and I'd lived a goodly chunk of a full, unencumbered life with husband, friends, family, a house, vacations in exotic places, and a modestly successful writing career. A pinch of self-doubt (okay, maybe a huge heaping truckload) in the face of such a major change seemed, if not completely natural, at least well into the normal range.
And I figured ... well, I really didn't figure, I suppose, in the same way that P. and I didn't think of it as "trying" to get pregnant, but merely as "not preventing." Instead, I flushed the evidence down the toilet and went to a job interview for a magazine writing position that I had little or no interest in, calling P. on my cell phone from the parking lot of the office building.
"It's okay, it's good. It's what we wanted, isn't it?" he asked gently, while I pressed clammy palms against hot, red cheeks and tried to fathom from the eyes staring back at me in the rearview mirror if it was, in fact, what I wanted.
Unlike what we told our friends ("We feel we need to make a major life choice every decade, whether we like it or not!"), we had come to the decision to have children much as we'd decided ten years earlier to get married: tentatively, a little tearfully, half-assedly backing down the rabbit hole with one eye to the sunlight. Each of us reassuring the other that it wouldn't be that different, me secretly thinking that if it all went wrong, I could find an escape hatch — sell the house, get a divorce, climb into the Way Back Machine, and magically return my life to the way it had been before.
Marriage, it turned out, agreed with me enormously. We were nauseatingly happy — the kind of arm-in-arm, private-joke-sharing couple you'd least want to run into on the street after your boyfriend dumped you. We moved at the same speed, he and I, from the time we got up in the morning (as late as possible) to the time we went to bed at night (after the first interview on "Letterman"); a partnership on more or less equal footing — at least as much as it could be, given that he always made more money than I did.
Then we did the thing we could not undo. And as my belly swelled past the point of no return, so did my bubble of denial. When the time came, my inner nurturer would surface, I reasoned. It wasn't called maternal "instinct" for nothing, right? I headed into the delivery room armed with this flimsy bit of faith and my trusty arsenal of perfectly timed, perfectly clever responses to life's big questions.
Was it any surprise, then, that on the third day after an unplanned C-section, when they handed me a handsome, robust, and inconsolable baby boy in the middle of the night, that my little storehouse of easy one-liners proved utterly useless? As he lay wailing in my arms, all I could think was that I hadn't given life to this creature; he had taken my life from me.
Three weeks later, I was back, lying curled once again in a hospital bed, breasts dripping uselessly while I wished to god and Allah and anyone who'd listen that just this once I could have a do-over. "Are you planning on hurting yourself or your baby?" the young ER resident asked. Stripped of glib comebacks, I could only muster the flatly delivered, "No ... not planning on it."
The official diagnosis — postpartum depression — didn't really begin to describe the place I sank to, a place where doing ordinary daily things like brushing your teeth and putting on a bathrobe were Herculean tasks. One morning, I climbed halfway up the staircase and got sideswiped by a wave of panic that literally froze me to the railing. I don't know how long I sat there, unable to get to the top and unwilling to go back down in defeat, while the phone rang and the baby cried, until my mother arrived to rescue me.
I found myself living in my own private Idaho. My life and all the things in it — the mismatched dining room chairs, the refrigerator door plastered with years of silly photos and postcards, my car, my clothes — became impenetrable mysteries to me, as if someone had taken everything and rearranged it so that it was just a half a degree off. So when I reached for the juice pitcher or the light switch, they seemed unfamiliar and wrong.
One afternoon, on a forced march through the neighborhood with the baby, I found myself accosting a mother pushing a stroller down the street. "How do you take a shower?" I demanded. "How do you take a shower and have a baby at the same time?" And when she laughed a little nervously and said, "Don't worry. It gets easier," I almost followed her home to see exactly what she meant.
The nights were the worst. On the ones when P. and I had to go it alone, when my mom took a night off to sleep, I crawled into bed and lay awake, anticipating the inevitable wailing in the next room. The sound of a baby crying is genetically programmed to dance on its mother's very last nerve, only my very last nerve was completely shot; when he cried the effect was the emotional equivalent of two vertebrae rubbing together with no disc in between to cushion them. On those nights I lay there, skin prickling with anxiety, as in that dream where you have to take a test that you haven't studied for, or when the phone rings in the middle of the night. All I wanted to do was sleep. The one thing I couldn't do was sleep.
A blur of days and weeks took me from spring to summer, but nothing seemed to make a dent in the terror — unseen hands that grabbed at my throat in the wee hours until I could barely breathe, waves of desperation that rose up and made me gag and sweat. P., the man who up until now had finished my sentences, was empathetic, miserable, and utterly bewildered. I caught him in moments giving me the tentative sideways glance one usually reserves for a person talking to herself on a bus, or for a large, drooling stray dog roaming the streets.
"Will I ever feel better?" I asked in our almost daily, rhetorical question-and-answer session, before he went off to work.
"Of course you will."
"What if I never love being a mom?"
"You will. And in the meantime, you just love me and I'll love the baby."
"Can you stay home from work today?" I pleaded.
"You know I can't."
"What should I do?"
"Take a walk. Get outside. Call your mom."
This last question always elicited a sigh. He simply couldn't understand this part of the equation — that having a baby had somehow robbed me of my identity. No longer a member of the working world, not part of the cabal of happy new moms who met for baby yoga and decaf lattes, I had been cast adrift and was now completely without direction or purpose — uninteresting and uninterested. "What do you like to do? What do you enjoy?" he asked me. I didn't answer. I honestly couldn't think of one thing.
Excerpted from Roar Softly and Carry a Great Lipstick by Autumn Stephens. Copyright © 2004 Autumn Stephens. Excerpted by permission of Inner Ocean Publishing.
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