Through a lens clearly

I have a list of therapies that haven’t worked for me.

This is not out of spite or stubbornness.  It’s because I’m starting to see a new therapist soon, and it’s important to me that they know what I’ve already tried and have not found helpful.  I don’t want them to rehash former attempts; I want them to offer me something new.

As a result, I’ve written a lot recently about therapeutic experiences I’ve had that missed the mark.  This is not meant to discount the experience of people who find a type of therapy helpful.  My assertion is always that patients are very diverse, and therapists need to be more cognizant of those differences to ensure they aren’t following a one size fits all policy.

There is a frequent misconception that if a specific therapy is not helpful to a person, it’s a consequence of the patient not understanding, not practicing what they learned, or not trying hard enough.  In some cases one or more of these may be true.  However, it’s also true that everyone has certain methods and styles that work for them, as illustrated by the fact that some therapies for the same symptom seem to be polar opposites in approach.

One example is the advice I’ve received about coping with obsessive thoughts.  One therapist and the books he gave me advocated acknowledging the thoughts and labeling them as obsessive and unhelpful, then seeking distraction through enjoyable activities.  The next therapist felt strongly that I should not label my thoughts, but should “sit with them” and accept them, and practice mindfulness and distress tolerance.

In my case, the former style has been far and away more successful in alleviating my discomfort and increasing my functionality, even though it doesn’t always work.  (Does anything?)  So I’ve adopted it into a set of coping skills that also includes healthy habits like yoga, studying astronomy, and writing, as well as not-so-healthy ones like smoking tobacco, comfort eating, and, formerly, drinking.  However, I’ve taken some flack from certain professionals who think that I am not doing a good enough job and am simply lazy for taking a road that includes playing video games and watching nerdy TV shows I’ve seen a million times (hello, TNG!) instead of meditation.  One therapy is judged more praiseworthy than another, not because it’s working but essentially because of its cultural cachet.

This perception of people as failing by rejecting a therapy results in a certain amount of shame and reluctance to speak up.  I’ve witnessed this in rehab, where one patient was going through the one-month program for the eleventh time, and a large percentage had been there at least once before.  How is it expected that following the exact same process, with all the same information and advice, will help someone who has already “failed” ten times?  At what point should we recognize that something simply isn’t working?

Twelve-step programs are another great example.  The first question most health care workers ask when you describe yourself as an alcoholic is “do you attend Alcoholics Anonymous?”  When the answer is no, there is frowning involved.  Twelve-stepping is the only therapy many therapists seem to accept for addiction, despite its flaws.

AA touts the idea that its approach is nearly always successful, and that if it doesn’t work for someone, it’s because they are constitutionally, pathologically incapable of honesty and responsibility.  In my opinion, this is a way of saying that if a person doesn’t achieve sobriety through their method, they are a lost cause because they are simply too flawed.  There is an assumption that if you don’t do AA, you don’t really want to sober up, and won’t ever succeed.

But in reality, the program is successful in only 5 to 10% of cases, akin to the success rate of any other specific type of therapy in addiction cases.  Even assuming that half the cases in which people don’t get sober through twelve-stepping are caused by internal or external factors in the patient’s life (which I consider a fairly generous concession) upwards of 45% of cases can best be explained by the simple need to find a different therapy.

Even in cases where the widespread effectiveness of a specific therapy is scientifically demonstrated, this does not constitute a reason to insist on one therapy and dismiss others in any given patient.  Naturally, if the success rate is 90% (based on a certain definition of success and method of research) then one in ten people is still not achieving optimal results.  Isn’t that a large enough percentage that it deserves a change in attitude; an increased willingness to shift gears and listen to patients about what works for them?

My favorite therapist I’ve had, who first raised the possibility of autism with me, used to say that it’s all about through what lens you approach a problem.  Two people’s respective symptoms may receive the same diagnosis, yet stem from totally different causes and require a different lens in order to clearly understand and effectively threat them.  He suggested that my autistic tendencies are likely so deeply rooted, being, of course, not a mental illness but a neurological difference, that failure to acknowledge them– particularly in treatment of my social anxiety– had probably caused a lot of my therapy to involve barking up the wrong tree.

After spending several months addressing autism issues and going over my symptoms to see if they were in accord with the diagnosis, the sheer relief I felt was like coming up for air.  I had a lexicon, for the first time, to describe my experience of life, and validation of the fact that I felt different but that the difference might not actually be a flaw.  I think the day I was tentatively diagnosed with autism began a whole new stage of my life and certainly of my mental health.

Not every experience I’ve had with therapy– as I’ve written about before– has been so positive.  If more professionals had questioned their own assumptions, listened more carefully to me, and done more research about potential therapies, it’s possible this stage could have begun much earlier, though that’s water under the bridge now.

Mental illness and developmental differences are often very isolating and alienating.  All patients deserve the relief of knowing that the first choice isn’t always the right one, and that there is no shame in speaking up for what you need.  Therapy is about the patient, not the therapist, and their well-being comes above preconceived value judgments and generalizations.

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A psychologist’s epic fail on autism treatment

Dear Dr. Jim,

I’ve been all over therapy, or it’s been all over me.  I’ve spent literally half my life with it, on and off, drifting from therapist to therapist and method to method, trying to find one that would work for me.  So when you let me down and violated my trust in CBT group the other day, I wasn’t shocked or even surprised.

I’m sure you have plenty of rationalizations for what happened.  You were trying to help, I didn’t ask you to stop (said to a victim of sexual violence?  Really?) or I’m just not trying hard enough.  But the fact is, your assurances of safety and disinterest were meaningless, and I knew it, because you judged me the moment you walked in the door.

I know what you saw.  A dumpy blue-mohawked young woman with a dozen piercings, rocking in my chair and rubbing my hands, staring blankly at the carpet, saying nothing and engaging with none of the other participants’ conversations.  I probably looked like something the cat dragged in to you.  I needed you to quit looking and listen to me instead, but you wouldn’t.

You tried to shake my hand and I avoided it, partly because I already suspected you had Older White Male Asshole Syndrome.  So I suppose we both prejudged, but in fairness, you were the professional in control of the whole situation and supposedly the healthy party.  And in any case, I would have loved to see you even try to prove me wrong.

In any case, perhaps that offended you, or maybe you just really hated the way I looked, or maybe you’re just a jerk, because within a minute of sitting down, you were bullying me with smug down-talking veiled only by being ostensibly directed at no one in particular.  You talked, without prompting, about how it’s “easier to make yourself feel depressed” (emphasis mine) when you “hunch over, hang your head, don’t look up and smile.”  You lectured that if you just fake something long enough, and get good enough at faking it, then you are not faking it anymore because it’s now a part of you.

By that point I was really getting quite irritated that we weren’t talking about things that might actually be helpful, as well as humiliated because it had to be clear to everyone in the room that I was the true addressee, given that I was the one looking at the floor.  So I spoke out.  I told you that I didn’t agree with you, because some people have skills that others lack, and as a result some things will always be harder for me than for most people.  Practice music all I like, I said to you, but I will not be playing alongside Yo-yo Ma, ever; lift weights all I like and I’ll still never look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, thank god.  And I can max out my acting-normal ability, but it will always be work to me.  I will never have the same experience of social situations, or of life in general, that a neurotypical person can, and the corollary is that they can’t have mine either.  Sometimes there are hard truths about people and life that we can’t just fake away.

And so it began.  An hour and a half of you badgering me with repeated phrases like “That doesn’t just happen magically” (as if that was my assertion?  Really?) and “Something will work, you just have to keep trying” (as if I wasn’t?  Just because I disagreed with you?)  Watching me get more and more agitated, pulling my hair, biting my fingers, stammering and losing my voice, trembling all over. You patronized me with leading questions:  “Tell me how you learned to ride a bike.”

Inside my brain, stupendously large eye roll.  Just make your fucking point, I’m not eight years old.

“You’ve used the training wheels long enough.  At some point you have to just take them off.”  Wow, thanks, that’s the most insightful thing I’ve heard all day, man.

“What do you think will happen if you just let yourself look people in the eye and speak up and smile?  What is that voice telling you?”

Bite me.

I clung to my ability to fight back at you because I felt so violated by your conduct, and I didn’t want to give you the satisfaction of forfeiting.  But I’m not much good in a test of mental stamina.  You sat there and watched me have happen one of the things I fear the most in life:  Melting down with a bunch of people looking at me.  Even when I broke and insisted in broken sentences that I needed to go home right away, you just raised your voice over mine and imperiously “suggested” that I “stay and try a different way of doing things.”  Thanks for that: five more people than before have now seen me lose my voice, clamp my hands over my ears and dash out of a room.  You are very, very good at this.

Regarding your bicycle sophistry, I think another analogy was more relevant.  I actually really like brussels sprouts, but hypothetically, let’s say I don’t.  But I really want to eat them because they’re healthy and everyone else in my family loves them (again, speaking hypothetically, of course; I live with the picky IRL.)  So a few times a week, I roast up a plate of brussels sprouts and force myself to eat them.  At first they really make me gag, but after a long time I’m able to get larger quantities of them down and not feel completely miserable.  However, I still do not enjoy them one bit; they are simply a means to an end.

What you were suggesting seems to be fixating on brussels sprouts and determining “something will work, I WILL ENJOY THESE FUCKING BRUSSELS SPROUTS!” and psychoanalyzing the early-childhood origins of my loathing of the humble sprout.  Whereas what I wanted to do, which seemed much more reasonable, was to say, “Okay, doc, I don’t enjoy brussels sprouts but I can eat them when I need to, so now can we move to the fact THAT MY FUCKING LEG HAS GANGRENE AND TWO OF MY TOES HAVE FALLEN OFF?”

Why is it apparently required that I love every part of myself and everything I do?  Does every quirk, every deviation, in a person really have to be hammered out in pursuit of some idea of a fully actualized, enlightened individual, whatever those words even mean?  Seriously, I come in for a transmission overhaul and you’re pressuring me to do body work first?

Yes, I don’t make eye contact.  Yes, I am not very animated but I am very fidgety.  Yes, I stare blankly and it makes me look like I’m pissed off.  No, I’m not pissed off (well, I wasn’t.)  No, I do not usually stare at the floor, but there wasn’t anywhere else to look that wasn’t covered with a person.  And guess what?  On the piece of paper in your hands there’s a little word “ASD”– I assume as a PhD in psychology you are familiar with Autism Spectrum Disorders and the initialism.  You could have shown some sensitivity to or at least acknowledgment of that, but that would have required thinking critically and taking the time to treat me like a human being.

Why is it so hard for you to accept that some things about me that annoy you, that you don’t think are normal or positive, are not in fact things I want to change?  That while they may not define me, they are part of me as I know myself, and not a part I hate?

Why is it so important to you to verify your kneejerk assumption about what I am, to justify it with contempt of any understanding I have of myself?  You had never met me once before Hell’s Therapy Session, and yet you casually didn’t deign to mention a diagnosis from a psychologist who saw me weekly for over a year, because that wasn’t what you had already decided was my Problem.

That’s honestly one of the worst things about having suffered trauma and being open about it.  People start seeing it everywhere.  You aren’t a person to them anymore, you’re just a walking tragedy.  They want to feel sorry for you, but they easily become frustrated when you don’t meet their standards of “getting over it.”  At the same time, every negative thing about you they want to ascribe to your trauma, as if it remade you from scratch.  You no longer have quirks or foibles, only symptoms.  You can’t be who you are, you can only be ill.

So congratulations on joining those ranks, on being so preoccupied with your perception of another person’s trauma that you didn’t want to know anything else.  And thank you for reacting the way you did, when you did.  It saved me a lot of trouble by confirming exactly the kind of person you are.

Regards,

-mhc

In which headcheese talks about sex and is concise!

There is no such thing as gay sex.

There is also no such thing as straight sex, any more than there’s such a thing as “nerd sex” (not even if we’re talking about people role-playing Data and Tasha Yar in “The Naked Now”) or “blond-haired sex” or “Asian sex.”

Sex can happen in countless different ways with countless different combinations of participants.  Each sexual encounter is unique.  There is nothing wrong with having terminology to describe those many permutations, because it’s important that we all be able to discuss sex openly and accurately.

But when we preface the word sex itself with sweeping adjectives, the same pejoration effect occurs that happens when we put disabilities before people.  Consider the difference between the phrases “bipolar woman” and “person with bipolar disorder.”  One is longer than the other, sure, but it conveys so much more, connotatively.  It reminds us that an illness is just one part of a person, and that there is still an individual coexisting with the symptoms.  It conveys a complexity that instantly makes the noun in question seem more real and sympathetic.

By the same token, when we use terms like “straight sex” and “gay sex,” we put the assumptions associated with the adjective before nuanced concept of sex.  As a result, we are drawn to a homogeneous (mis)conception of a broad category or “type” of sexual encounter.  When people hear “gay sex,” they likely imagine anal intercourse.  “Lesbian sex,” on the contrary, might bring to mind dildos and toys.  (Because how could women fuck without some analog of a penis?)  We focus on this category as the defining feature of the encounter, rather than identifying its specific characteristics.

When we, instead, talk about “sex between two women” or “between two nongendered people” or “between three strangers” or “in married couples,” just as a few examples, we first emphasize the commonality of the act; whatever connotations the word sex has for each person, we are prompted by this phrasing to first consider them, and then to move on, mentally, to narrowing down the pertinent characteristics of the encounter.

As much as we can, if we’re to improve our culture’s treatment of sexuality, we need to first treat sex as sex and decide what that means to us, not waste our breath on facile, erroneous “types.”  So stop having gay sex and straight sex, and start just having sex.  It’s way better that way.

What are your thoughts on the language we use to talk about sex and sexuality?  Leave me a comment– I love reading them!

“But you seem so normal!”

People who actually know me rarely seem surprised that I am autistic, but when I bring it up with those who don’t, I often get a different reaction.  “I never would have guessed!”  “Are you sure?”  “It’s normal to feel shy sometimes!”

They likely notice that I hardly ever make eye contact, and that I move awkwardly through the world, but they don’t immediately perceive me as disabled, perhaps just a little on the withdrawn side.  Generally, I respond with something brief like “Not all of the symptoms are obvious,” but I want to provide a better explanation of how I am able to appear “normal” in small doses.

Basically, it all comes down to practice.  When I was fifteen, I saw a video of myself and, comparing my speech and mannerisms to the other people in the video, I realized that I was way off target.  I was speaking more loudly, more nasally and with less inflection than the other people, and laughing loudly and nervously without reason.  (I’d been told that I spoke too loudly before, especially by my then-boyfriend, who, when I got excited about philosophy and started practically shouting in a restaurant, grabbed my arm and growled “Don’t ever do that again.”)  I was unfamiliar with autism at the time, but I did know I’d always been socially inept, and I resolved to change the way I acted.

It was very difficult at first, and made being around others even more stressful than usual.  Over the years, though, I like to think I’ve gotten pretty good at it, with the exception of the eye contact thing and (I’ve been told) “seeming distant.”  In some ways it relieves stress, because it makes something challenging closer to automatic.  It’s also still stressful overall, however, compared to just not trying.  I put on a good mask, but it’s heavy to wear, and if I have to do it for more than a couple of hours I’m likely to melt down and flee (one reason why I can’t work a regular job.)  I have to have a significant amount of time each day when I can just be myself, and whether I consider someone a true friend is based on whether I can do that when they’re around.  Not too many of those have ever come my way, but I’m awfully happy about the ones who have.

I think of my strategy as Reconnaissance, Rehearse, Recall, Replay. Reconaissance involves peoplewatching at every opportunity and taking note of specific behaviors, especially if it’s recognizable as effective (for example, the person receives a smile or gets what they want.) Rehearsing involves practice emulating what you’ve seen and heard.  When no one is around, you can record yourself and play it back, and/or stand in front of a mirror and practice, and you can go over your plan of action in your head as many times as you want.  In Recall, which was the most difficult step for me, I had to train my memory to accurately store and quickly retrieve the information I’d gained.  It wouldn’t do to have the exact right thing planned out to say and then have to fumble for the words in the moment.  Again, practice, practice.  Finally, Replay is going over what happened in your mind later on.  I was far from perfect at first and made a lot of big mistakes.  It’s important to evaluate what you’ve done and, without beating yourself up over it (easier said than done,) figure out what you can do better next time based on clues to people’s reactions.

In one representative instance, not long after I started the four R’s, I was out with my brother at a shoe store, and when the clerk asked how he was doing, he responded, “I’m wonderful, how about yourself?”  This instigated a large grin and a “Good, thank you!”  Ding ding ding.  I altered the phrasing to sound less smarmy, practiced it out loud and in my head to get the intonation right, made it a habit, and ever since then my default response to “How are you?” (unless it’s a close friend and they really want to know) is “I’m good, how are you?”  And I was delighted to discover that I got smiles and thank-yous, as well.  So now I have a solid plan for how to deal with one throwaway social interaction, usually at grocery store checkouts.  And the panic over having to invent a decent response on the spot is gone.

I’m not saying I think autistic people should try to change or hide who they are.  I have found it useful to work on scripting my casual interactions to appear more neurotypical.  I am very open to answering questions about autism and my mental health conditions with anyone who is interested; I’m not trying to pretend I’m not different.  But in cases where the genuineness of an exchange isn’t really important and there’s little educational potential, I find it’s just simpler and less awkward to not raise the issue.  (And after all, the situation itself is already fairly scripted, it’s just that most people don’t have to think about it as hard as we do.)

I celebrate neurodiversity and totally respect the choice of some autists not to disguise their distinctive affect (and efforts like the Loud Hands project.)  For those who do wish to change how they interact, though, I think it’s helpful to learn from the experiences of others; I know I wish I’d had a guide.  So I hope that this post will be useful for education of both spectrum and non-spectrum readers.  Let me know in the comments what you think about the issue, and any tips you may have!

You asked for it, you got it

I’ve received a few messages (okay, meaning two) requesting that I post more stories of my relatable experiences with intrusive thoughts, so with some reservation I’ve decided to share what happened to me last night.

I was exhausted from a new medication dosage and ended up sleeping from about 6 to 8 p.m.  As is usual for me, this sleep was filled with violent, disturbing nightmares, and also as usual, I woke up shaking, drenched in sweat, feeling like there was a crushing weight on my chest.  Then for some reason I started thinking about ways people die, and why people are more afraid of some causes of death than others.

Specifically, I wondered why people are more terrified of dying in flames than of dehydration, which is a much more protracted experience.

And all was well with those thoughts until I remembered a movie from a few years back called Ladder 49, in which Joaquin Phoenix gets trapped in a burning building and calls off the rescue operations because he doesn’t want his fellow firefighters to die in the futile attempt.  I wondered if I would have the courage to do the same.

And there went the thoughts.  Suddenly, in a matter of seconds, I became utterly convinced that my apartment was about to catch fire and burn me alive.  I knew beyond a doubt that I had to get out of there, but at the same time, I knew that I had to be there to save my beloved cat and my family photos and my laptop.  I lay in bed feeling paralyzed, not knowing what to do, for over an hour.

Perhaps this was substantiated by an electric fire in a neighboring apartment building, where my mother lived, a year and a half ago.  Perhaps it was spurred by my childhood obsessive fear of spontaneous combustion.  I don’t really know, I just know that it felt as real as anything around me, all of which, including my own self, felt less and less real.

Even as convinced as I was, there was still a cold, logical part of me that knew I was being irrational, and this only made it more painful because I felt so ashamed and frustrated at not being able to control my thoughts.  Luckily, after enough time had passed, that part of me induced me to seek help.  I texted Person of Interest and we were able to video chat for a couple of hours, until I felt distracted; he even managed to make me smile, which is a special superpower he possesses.  He helped me to put my thoughts in perspective and remember how to deal with them.  As I sometimes do, I was able to envision locking the thoughts in a safe deep in my mind and building brick walls around them until I felt slightly less controlled by them.

Of course, my inner narrator, of whom I’ve spoken in a recent post, made all of this much more difficult.  She was talking to me, describing the whole thing at every turn, murmuring things like, “The apartment is about to burn down.  She knows she should get out but she’s too stupid and cowardly.  She’s going to burn alive because she’s so stupid and lazy.” How do you cope if the extra person inside you, who knows your every thought, predicts your imminent demise with such clarity and conviction?

But at the same time, I think she, the Narrator, helped to create the resourcefulness that allowed me to keep a little perspective and seek help.  I’ve grown so used to her over the past 25 or so years, so used to recognizing her as unreal, that I’ve developed an intensely skeptical attitude toward pretty much everything.  Show me the evidence or GTFO, and there was no empirical evidence to support my claim of immediate danger.  I’ve always cultivated this side of myself because it’s served me well– certainly not in relating to a community, but definitely in creating a separate area of my mind that analyzes and criticizes itself at all times, inducing a scientific, doubtful frame of mind.  Were it not for the unexpected power of this part of me, I don’t know what I would have done.

Still, despite all that, I kept getting up to check that the stove was off– rattle each knob five times, then say “Goodbye, Mr. Stove” and soon do it all again– as well as unplugging all the lights and electronics, despite my terror of the dark, because frankly being attacked by an intruder or supernatural being seemed less horrible than being burned alive at random.  I was in agony, much more so than any physical pain I’ve ever experienced.  I have a special ability to consciously control my own heart rate, but only when I can focus intensely, and so even that wasn’t helpful with such distracting litanies occupying my brain. 

I hyperventilated and had cringeworthy heart palpitations and, again, felt like an anvil was on my chest and pressing my shoulders into the bed.  Every muscle in my body was tensed to the extreme.  It felt like every neuron in my brain was firing and frying; I didn’t know what was real; I couldn’t control myself; the cognitive strain seemed to induce an indescribable migraine in which everything I saw swam about randomly, my ears rang deafeningly, and a specific spot in my head endured a sharp, focused pain.  The narrator whispered, “She’s going crazy.  She’s broken.  Her mind is broken.  She thinks these things are real.  She’s lost it.”

After I talked to Person of Interest (who is fantastic at making me feel better, but talking to someone else I trusted would also have worked well) I laid back down and thought I would go to sleep, when I suddenly remembered that after using mascara (which I very rarely do) a few days ago, some of my eyelashes– maybe half a dozen– had fallen off when I washed my face.  I panicked and worried that there was some disease on the mascara that was going to make all of my eyelashes fall out while I slept.  I kept having to check my eyelashes by touch at one minute intervals, and after every three checks, I had to go turn on the bathroom light and scrutinize them in the mirror to make sure they were okay.  I vaguely remembered reading the story of a girl who suddenly lost all her hair at age 11, and was mortified to imagine walking around with no eyelashes, as much an object of ridicule as I already am. 

Fortunately, in this case, I was able to reattribute my thoughts and distract myself with 5 episodes of 30 Rock, because the skeptic in me knew how absurd the fear was.

I like to think I’ve gained some control over the way I react to panic attacks and intrusive thoughts, but the fact is that the sensations of the thoughts, the physical symptoms, are still ever-present and seemingly intolerable.  Over the past few months, in which I’ve had to work myself down from panic attacks multiple times per week (sometimes multiple times per day) I’ve even learned to consciously control my heart rate (I know, pretty awesome, right?) but it only works when I can focus exclusively on it.  My narrator has both made matters worse, and helped me develop rock-solid defense mechanisms.

Frankly, it’s fucking confusing.  I’m used to understanding and adjusting to the mood-based tricks my brain plays on me, and addressing irrational anxiety.  But over the last six to eight months, and particularly a difficult time I went through several weeks ago (not to say it was wrong or intolerable; any other factor could equally have triggered the same result) I’ve begun to break.  Like a piece of aluminum sheeting that’s been bent back and forth so much that it’s not quite severed yet, but the stress has begun to show clearly on it; it’s grown thin and weak. 

That’s how I am.  I am a camel’s back waiting for a straw.  I am a storm waiting for a butterfly to flap its wings.  I don’t know what’s happening.  I have cocooned inside my own mind, and the thoughts there seem more real, more concrete, than anything outside myself.  And yet I have protected this small part of me from the deluge.  Who can explain it?  Not I.  To break, I was fragile to begin with, but why?  Why did I have to quit university?  Why am I unable to work?  Why am I who– no, what— I am?  The question frightens me.  I have to walk away from it now, before it scares me more.

I hope this story, as painful as it is to share, is helpful to one or more people out there.  Cheers.

ETA:  It’s been brought to my attention that this post is slightly incoherent and somewhat redundant.  I do apologize for the problem, but I haven’t the capacity to rewrite it in a better manner right now.  I hope it will still be helpful.

Edited for grammar and coherence 9/10 –mhc

Why I stopped killing myself

There are many reasons I started drinking.  There’s only one reason why I stopped.

I remember the first time I got well and truly drunk.  I was 19, and I had bronchitis, as I tend to do several times per year.  I found that the only thing that soothed my cough and let me sleep at all was a bottle of wine that my mother in law (with whom I and my then-husband were living) had had in the fridge for some time.  I had sipped wine before, but never gotten more than a little buzz.  Without even realizing it, I ended up drinking the whole bottle of wine, and what I felt I had never felt before:  total relaxation, not caring anymore, feeling as if nothing mattered because a simple drink could make me forget it all.

Prior to that night, I had disdained alcohol.  I would go to parties at my parents’ friends’ houses and see people drinking and acting like fools, laughing too loud and talking too much, and I always thought “I never want to be like that,” so I would choose a glass of ice water over wine or beer.  In that moment, with that bottle of white zin, everything changed, even though I didn’t know it for a long time.  I started keeping a bottle of vodka in the fridge and making a Bloody Mary or The Vodka Still Works (= ginger ale + bitters + vodka) when I felt stressed out.  (To his specious credit, my then-husband would get upset with me and pour out my drinks, saying he “wouldn’t let me become an alcoholic,” although I think his motivations had much more to do with control than concern.)

But it wasn’t until a few years later that I really understood what alcohol could do for/to me.  I was divorced and had just gone back to university, and every time I was assigned a paper and tried to work on it, I froze up, panicked, couldn’t work, and the more I couldn’t work the more I hated myself and the more stressed I got.  So one night, convinced I was going to fail at anything I ever tried to do and never be loved or understood by anyone, I went to the store and bought a bottle of Merlot.  I drank the whole thing, and I lay on the floor puking into my wastebasket and I thought: “This is it.  This is the solution to every problem I’ve ever had.  If I could just feel like this all the time, everything would be okay.”  And being that I had drunk such small amounts before, I had virtually no hangover/withdrawal, so it seemed there was no downside.

Within the year after that, I began to have opportunities to socialize with people I’d met in class, which scared the fucking shit out of me.  It had been years since I’d had a “friend” or really spent time with anyone who wasn’t my abusive, possessive husband or partner.  Suddenly I understood that if I drank while I was with other people, I could stop feeling so petrified and actually talk to them. 

For the first time in my life, I went to parties, I chatted, I flirted.  I did the things I didn’t know how to do, and I didn’t realize until much later that I was actually being my usual bumbling, bizarre self only less toned down because I had no inhibitions while drunk.  I said whatever came into my head, which, it turns out, usually means I’m being a rude, insensitive asshole. 

I started making stupid irrational decisions, dating people with whom I had nothing in common and then suddenly declining their calls and dropping off the face of the earth.  I had unprotected casual sex even though I hated it, because it just didn’t seem to matter one way or the other.  I didn’t care about anything anymore.  I stopped planning my time and would rush off my assignments while shit-faced drunk at 3AM, knowing in my overconfident stupor that I’d get an A anyhow.  I burned a hole in my stomach that still flares up in times of stress.  I started to have constant tremors and sometimes hallucinations when I didn’t drink, and the obvious solution seemed to be to drink more, to drink all day every day, to just never be sober on the days when I wasn’t caring for my son.

Then I met Person of Interest, and for the first time somebody had a genuine, vested interest in asking me not to drink and abuse drugs.  I knew he loved me, though I didn’t understand it, and I knew why he wanted me to be sober.  But it wasn’t enough.  I would try very hard for weeks to not drink at all, because I was madly, head over heels in love with him and I wanted to do anything that would make him happy.  And then something stressful would happen and I would go on a total bender.  My mental health was beginning to decline drastically, and it was a terrible time for that to happen, while navigating a new relationship.

 Fast forward 9 months; I was hospitalized and then went into rehab.  I tried twelve-stepping.  I attended and I listened and I thought, and at first it seemed like magic, and then pretty quickly it seemed like pretense– just another religion I didn’t really believe in, with its bible and its catechisms and its rituals.  But there was a moment in rehab when everything changed, and it had nothing to do with AA or NA or abstinence or any of the rules or skills I was taught.  As often happens with me, my life changed because someone told me a story.

If you’ve read my Dysfunctional Fairytales, you will recognize this story as incorporated into the first, because it made such an impression on me.  During a meeting, a young woman stood up and recounted the story of how she watched her sister die of an overdose.  “She was a beautiful African-American woman,” she said with tears rolling down her cheeks, “and when I looked in her eyes, I could see that she would be dead, because they were grey, they were just grey.” 

And then she spoke of the children of her sister.  “I try to be close to them, but I can barely stand to be around them because the girl, she looks so much like her mom.  And the boy, he was two when she died, and I was taking care of them.  He’d wake up at night sweaty and screaming and crying ‘My mommy died.’  I miss her, she was my sister, but I hate her a little bit because of what she did to that little boy.”

I am a parent of a little boy, who was five when I heard the story.  And my heart broke.  I realized how selfish I had been, and that no matter how bad I felt, no matter how much agony, my son was worth any price.  As long as he was in this world, unless I abused him, which I would never do, it was better for him to know his mom– even if he ended up hating me– than to know that I killed myself, poisoned myself slowly, before he could even know me and decide.  I couldn’t– I can’t– bear the thought of him going through what that poor little two year old did, and I knew that I had a choice to spare him.  How could I choose any other way?

I’m not going to lie; I’ve gone on a few benders since that night.  I’m no angel.  I’ve relapsed, but it doesn’t last long, because with every drink I’ve taken since then that little boy’s face and voice, as I imagine them, have haunted me.  I may be many things but one thing I cannot do is harm a child, and to kill myself would be to irreparably harm the most beautiful child who has ever existed.  And to continue to drink day and night, to fool myself into treating it as a medication that I deserve, is no different from slitting my throat very slowly.  Any day, I could have gone into DTs and never recovered.  Any day, I could have been gone.  No matter how much it hurts, no more.  Never again.