May the Pruning be Light

It is hallow’s eve eve. We are deep into the tenth month of the year, on the cusp of a blue moon, and just days before the 2020 presidential election. Now seems like the perfect time for reflection. It may be now or never, because for the remainder of the year I suspect we’ll all be in a state of whiplashed shock. Whether brought on by the election and the dreaded days after, the ever escalating social, economic, and racial unrest in America, the constant roller coaster of living amid a pandemic with no end in sight, or a demented determination to put on some kind of “normal” show this holiday season for the children, modern humanity is pushing the edges of our emotional and psychological capacities. Many of us are becoming professional wingers (not swingers) and the phrase, “I don’t know kiddos, maybe when the virus is over”, falls out of our mouths like we are a chorus of broken robots.

I, personally, feel like I’m creeping maniacally toward the edge of a cliff, helpless to stop or turn back. Moving ever closer to the brink and hoping beyond hope that when I look down, it’ll only be a ten foot drop to a grassy valley below, rather than the depthless pit I imagine. As we collectively take yet another step toward where our old lives and realities end, perhaps forever, and where whatever is on the other side begins, now seems as good a time as any to walk backwards and take a look at where this year has brought us.

The first year of this decade contained the death of my North Star, and for that alone, it would have been remembered evermore for being life-altering. But that was really just the icing on the cake. What comes to the surface, as I look back at snapshots, is:

We uprooted our lives and moved to Puerto Rico. While there, I turned 40 on a beautiful sunny day that started with my giggling children snuggling in bed with me, and ended standing with my husband on a beach, drinking a rum punch while listening to our kids chase stray kittens at the restaurant bar behind us and watching the sun set over the Caribbean. Then, we moved back to Texas in the blink of an eye, amid a burgeoning pandemic, with seven days in between “is this virus going to really affect the US” and “now boarding Spirit Airlines for Florida”. My daughter lost her first tooth, and I can’t remember where I put it. My son learned to swim surrounded by the adorable support of his three best friends, cheering him on, with his big sister swimming right alongside him as he hugged the wall of the swimming pool. Some neighbors and I started a pod school for our five kids when it became clear that public school was going to be a bust. We are all the teachers, so now I’m a social studies teacher. My kids get to walk or ride bikes to school, which will probably never happen again as long as we live in Texas. For afternoon recess, they go swimming. I got a raise, and then a promotion – crazy luck, as unemployment skyrockets. My oldest child was officially diagnosed with schizophrenia, which runs in my family. He moved back home, and we all kinda like it. My husband quit drinking and picked up seventeen potential hobbies and started waking up at 4 am. I forgave the only two people I have ever hated, both on the day of Grammy’s funeral – like magic. I started writing a book in my “spare time”. I try to walk and meditate every day; 70% of the time I’m successful. Spiritual practice came calling. Oh yeah, and I quit drinking.

I may have learned more this year than in any previous year of my life. I don’t know if that is saying much. Maybe it just feels like I’m learning, because I’m sober now and I actually absorb information and paying attention comes more naturally. No matter, this year has been filled with the potential for growth. You know the kind: ‘the pruned tree grows taller, stronger, and more beautiful’. The kind of growth that no one wants, but life gives us anyway. This “opportunity” has come to us on a global scale. For perhaps the first time since a world war, (nearly) the entire world has had to face up to an aggressive pruning and either (1) adapt and grow with what you’ve got left, or (2) shrivel and go dormant because . . . seriously, WTF? Why so much pruning?!

Garden analogies aside, I am terribly grateful for the support, opportunity, and space to have been able to adapt this year. I am the luckiest person I know. It won’t be long now, and I’ll be grateful for the pruning as well.

A few sobriety lightbulbs resulted in my alcohol free mind these last 6 months, which I think may worth sharing for those who are curious, those in the back, and for my future arrogant self:

  • Yes, you ARE lying to yourself. Just because there are other people who get drunker than you do, or start drinking earlier in the day than you, or drink harder liquor does not mean that you are not an alcoholic. Other people’s drinking has nothing to do with ours. It doesn’t matter that “so and so wakes up and starts drinking, and I would never do that, so I don’t have a problem.” Negative. If we are questioning and rationalizing how much we drink, then there is a very good reason for that – don’t ignore that voice. If you have made it to the point where you want to stuff a sock in that voice because you prefer drinking, you might be in trouble. I had to get to “Yes, I know it’s a problem because I am compelled to do it every day, but I just like it so much and couldn’t possibly calm myself after so much stress without it!” before I (eventually) found the courage to jump ship.
  • Alcohol is a tricky little depressant, which is so very cruel to those with depression. We may feel better, happier, and lighter right now, when we start to drink, then get blissfully drunk, but – buddy-o-pal – tomorrow will be nothing but a thick bag of depression beating you over the head. Until you start drinking again . . .
  • Don’t misconstrue the AA condition that your life has to become “unmanageable” for you to consider yourself an alcoholic. Many alcoholics live lives that we would not call unmanageable. Most of us can be beaten down by quite a lot and still find life manageable. Perhaps it’s not truly pleasurable or fulfilling, but, “meh, I am managing”. A manageable life is such a low bar. Instead, think about this: “If the life YOU WANT is unmanageable because of your drinking, then you may have a problem.” Ask yourself if you are able to seek and work for and strive toward a life you desire? Not a life that you can manage to live, but a life that you are happy and proud to live. There are a bazillion factors that could make the life you want to move toward impossible for now, but if one of them is that you are using alcohol to mute, numb and get through the day . . . well then, you may have some searching to do.
  • Success breeds failure. Everybody, everybody, everybody in AA groups keep saying: “now that I’m (insert amount of time) sober, and I’ve been successful staying sober, I am thinking about just starting to drink casually, like at a work event, or once a week at happy hour.” (Cue everyone in the group bursting into laughter at the same time.) I am in an online cohort where people pop up with this one all the time. (Thank goodness they keep asking for me so I don’t have to ask myself.) Each time, the old-timers say, “no, young Padawan, you cannot go from problem drinker to casual drinker.” But the Padawans often try it anyway, and then crawl back after a very bumpy fall off the wagon. It’s part of the learning curve, but I like to learn by watching other people fuck up. Then again, I’m doing pretty well with this sobriety thing – maybe someday I’ll be able to be a casual drinker . . .
  • Feelings are for feeling and there are a lot of feelings for a newly sober person. Feelings that we used to drink away. Well, now we get to stare at them and sit with them and hold them. I’ve burst into tears more times in the last six months than I had in the previous five years. And it’s been really, deliciously good and strange and confusing. Who is this feeling person and where did I drown her before? She’s alright.
  • The “mommy wine” movement was one of the stupidest movements ever created, and many of us jumped right on board, ticket in hand. Some of us begged for a seat. An entire society of mothers making other mothers feel like we could and should be pounding that bottle of red, because damn those crazy, loud, messy, over-scheduled offspring are stressful! “Crack that bottle, momma! You deserve it!” Oh, horseshit. It is nothing but lies, encouraging mothers who otherwise would never have become daily drinkers toward a serious drinking problem. Why do we do this to each other? Because misery loves company? Oh but it did feel good for a moment. By the way, there is nothing richer than soberly witnessing and experiencing this one and only life with my children, even if it is a shit-show and I wish they would shut the front door for a hot second.

My life is better sober. Better does not mean easier. It is raw, it’s messy, it’s lovely and beautiful and really hard. Life is hard. Hard does not mean bad. One more time: hard does not = bad. There is nothing bad about it, unless the alternative is easing your way out of reality at the bottom of a bottle, in which case the bottle seems far nicer, until you wake up tomorrow.

Like I told my little daughter earlier tonight when she said something was “too hard” and she couldn’t do it, “I know it’s hard, but it’s not too hard. It’s just plain hard, and you can do it.” I kissed her on her soft little forehead, and she proved me right.

We have two more months and one day remaining of this year. May it not be too hard. May the chasm up ahead actually be a valley. May your pruning be light, and may we all come out more beautiful on the other side.

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