It’s taken me what I consider a shamefully long time to put together some thoughts about Chris Cornell’s death in May. I awoke that morning to my husband gently telling me that Chris had killed himself the night before and immediately leapt out of bed to stream my hometown radio station, KEXP. In the shock of this terribly sad piece of news, I was transported back to April, 1994, when word came over the kitchen radio that a dead man who appeared to be in his late twenties had been found above Kurt Cobain‘s garage. Losing brilliant artists to suicide or drug overdoses or a combination of both is a devastating epidemic turned legacy of Seattle, my hometown. Andy Wood. Stefanie Sargent. Kristen Pfaff. Layne Staley. Mike Starr. Kurt himself. Hearing the news about Chris made me ache to be home, under chilly grey skies and dark Evergreen trees, so I did the next best thing–wrapped myself in flannel and turned up the radio. Continue reading
I attached a strong stigma to feeling lonely, believing this natural human state of existence to be a sign of a major flaw–being unlovable. Or worse, “lame”, that defeated state all kids, from middle school to college so desperately try to avoid. Being unlovable was one thing, a terrible sense of inevitable isolation, but being seen as lame, and therefore uncool, stung so much worse in the short-term. I’m not sure I can accurately calculate the amount of hours I spent alone in my room, or later my apartment, doing absolutely nothing other than castigating myself for not having more friends and interests. Desperate for someone, anyone to assuage the crushing sense of emptiness; the reverberating ennui. Being lonely was my biggest fear, and avoiding that natural state caused me to do impulsive and mean things. It made me the worst version of myself, someone whom I could not recognize, which, of course simply compounded the problem. Continue reading
I once read that there are two types of drinkers–the type without a family history of alcoholism and the type with. The type with history was known as sensation-seeking. I can’t help but feel like this phrase describes my life now. I feel like I am out there looking for sensation constantly, the next high. I’m not talking about substance abuse here. Since getting married I feel even less settled and certain about the future, in the most unexpected and delightful way. I’m reminded of a question we ask our survey respondents at work: did you want so much to engage in pleasurable activities that you ignored the risks or consequences? Every time I ask that question I see myself in it. It’s like I’ve connected with a part of me that I thought I lost long ago–the impulsive Kate who is always looking for a rush of some sort. It feels so good that I can’t help but wonder if there will be a crash. And when there is will I even care?
These words, written by my 28 year-old self in a facebook “note”, (if anyone remembers that apparatus), revealed itself to me in an fb memory from 2008, the year I married and took a nosedive off the wagon. I shuddered reading it, and remembered writing it. At the time I was working at the university’s school of social work collecting data on women subjects who were grappling with mental health issues and substance abuse and addiction. I was going into the homes of our respondents with a laptop computer and asking them questions like, did you want so much to engage in pleasurable activities that you ignored the risks or consequences? No one ever said yes. But as I sat with woman after woman, week after week, asking the same questions, I began to see myself in that statement. I began to mentally answer yes to that question. I began to push the boundaries of the pleasurable activities in which I was engaging, ignoring the risks or consequences.
The spring and summer before my wedding were a heady time. My fiance and I had been back in our hometown for the better part of a year by then, and were making all kinds of new friends who were introducing us to all kinds of new friends and everyone wanted to party and hang out and do stuff together. The social outlet was electrifying, and I would find myself propelled in all directions, rounding people up and making plans. I worked with a lot of my new friends and I’d decide, on the spot, to have a party that weekend, and I’d walk up and down the levels of the store until I found every last pal, asking if they were free and did they want to come by?
When I left that job I made new friends who were absorbed into the fold. Everyone was hitting it off with everyone, and we were getting together all the time, and always had something on the books, something to look forward to. My fiance got a job in another city and that was a whole new group that absorbed us into their fold and soon we were racing up and down I-5 to see this group or get back to that group. Then we got married, and that was the party to end all parties, the one where all the groups collided and everyone got along and that just served to make the next parties that much bigger and more frequent and by then I was off the wagon, back into the bottle, big time.
Getting back into booze reconnected me with the long-lost self who struggled with impulse control issues, always chasing the next rush. The eight year-old who, before an audience of classmates, threw a large granny smith apple into the girls’ room toilet, causing it to clog and overflow, was high on the attention and the risk of getting in trouble. The ten year-old who kicked in the back door of the abandoned house in the neighborhood to explore, heart pounding with the danger of being attacked or arrested. The thirteen year-old who sparked a lighter and aimed a jet of hairspray at the flame in her friend’s basement, eyes wide and breathing heavily from the rush of fire that could ignite the room. The sixteen year-old who turned the lights out in the school gym during a basketball game, plunging the court into darkness, then prank called as many classrooms as possible, hands shaking, hysterically laughing from the risk of being caught. This was all sensation-seeking, an attempt to feel something at the center of a consciousness gone numb.
My impulses are wild and many. They come up constantly, have no context, and urge me to do random shit that’s socially inappropriate, at best. They occur to me out of thin air. Put your gum out in that girl’s hair. Grab that flight attendant’s ass. Take that person’s laptop and fling it into the street. Tear open that guy’s shirt and stuff your face into his chest. The impulse pushes into my consciousness, and I dismiss it, often wrinkling my nose and thinking, really? This has been happening all my life, at least since I started school. And when I have an audience, I’m all but powerless before the almighty impulse that could shock and awe the people. And god forbid someone dares me to, because I will do it then and there, panting in reckless abandon, every nerve ending on fire. It’s all worth it, the risks and consequences, for that moment spent sailing off the edge, before I hit, knowing I’m out there, free.
It’s no wonder I became a drunk the first time I drank. Alcohol took me to that place of wild abandon. Then it took me beyond, where my most outrageous impulses had been driven underground, and invited me to explore any and all that I could summon.
I remember broken shards of the New Years Eve when I returned to alcohol. I knew before then, weeks before, actually, that I needed to stop drinking, that I couldn’t do it successfully. Always looking for a rush of some sort, I’d been experiencing plenty of crashes since I’d picked back up the bottle. Hungover, shaky and regretful at my desk at work I’d ask myself, are you ready to be done? Have you had enough? And for weeks the answer came back from deep inside, no. Not yet. No one was going to take what I sensed was my last opportunity to get drunk on NYE away from me, certainly not myself.
It was a bad party we were throwing. People weren’t getting along in one of the friend groups, and other key people had called out sick or drunk. Things were tense and awkward and so I bee-lined for the kitchen, poured myself a pint glass of vodka, sucked it down in seconds and slammed downstairs to the street below. Then I was kissing someone, a stranger I’d simply grabbed as she was walking by. Wild impulses. Cigarettes burning bright in 30 degree weather. Two young vets cringing at the fireworks going off and talking about how it’s taken so long to be OK with them since coming back from Iraq. Then this jagged, confusing sequence where my husband’s angry face, lips pursed in disapproval, appeared at the apartment building’s vestibule door, somehow knowing I was thinking about taking my top down for the group of men surrounding me on the sidewalk, then I’m looking down and seeing that my breasts are exposed, that I am caught in the act. Wild impulses. He drove everyone out of our apartment that night, unable to get control of me.
I needed to settle down, to take a night off, to spend time alone with my new husband talking about the future, making plans. Instead, I had the metaphorical pedal to the metal, bottle in hand, heading straight off a cliff. Sensation-seeking. And hey, like I noted earlier, would I even care when the crash came?
Yes, I would care, because the crash involved just about every part of my life. I lost my job, my housing, my marriage, most of my friends. I destabilized my finances and jeopardized my health. Once the destruction was complete, the sought sensations felt on all levels, every impulse acted on and burned out, I could no longer ignore the risks or consequences. The pleasurable activities had abandoned me, and I sat alone on a mattress on the floor of my best friend’s parents’ basement, head in hands. Sometimes I would look at a photo from my wedding, just six months earlier, at the joy captured there, and shake my head. What the fuck had gone so horribly wrong?
Booze. That’s what had gone so horribly wrong. Sure, there were other things, like overdoing social engagements, and spending time with the wrong people, and losing myself in relationships, but booze was what lit the match, touching it to the highly flammable surface. I often wonder how that year during which I was drinking for five months (five months is all it took to destabilize me completely!) would have played out sans booze. Very differently, I believe.
And so I am reminded, on the eight year anniversary of the last time I drank, of the absolute destructive power alcohol holds over me. A friend also in recovery once described there being a flaming sword between her and booze. I don’t go to AA because I don’t believe in god, and because I do believe AA is a cult, though I know it’s helped countless people like me. I don’t surround myself with other people in recovery because I find that community stifling and self-righteous. Sometimes I go to a bar if there’s a band playing I want to see, or friends are going and there’s really good guacamole. I don’t go to wineries, because what’s the point? I go on vacations and to parties where people are using alcohol and I never want any, it does not touch me. I am not triggered. I do not crave. There is a flaming sword between me and any bottle. I do not wish the sensation crossing the line would bring.
Periodically I wonder if I could just do one last big drunk and I know exactly what I would choose to pour down my throat and then I remember that I have a progressive disorder and might not get out alive this time. And I think about all the misunderstandings and bad feelings engendered by my impulses raging out of control, unchecked, set free by booze. I think about the life I’ve recovered and how every year without alcohol is better than the last, a little more feeling restored at a time, and I set out to seek sensation elsewhere.
It was a desperate, confusing time. I’d hitched my wagon to a star, uprooted my life to chase my dreams back to my hometown. I had seen a shimmering (if rain-soaked) post-graduate school future of career fulfillment, rich sociability, fascinating interests, and wealth (of course). I saw this vision with such clarity I believed all I had to do was go home and the pieces would fall into place. In fact, I remember journaling something along the lines of “this new life is something I feel I can just relax into”, so certain was my hope.
The brilliant sunlight glinting off the Columbia River, the water teeming with people recreating, the golden plains stretching to the horizon seemed to foreshadow the bright future that lay ahead as my boyfriend and I drove west on I-90. We were going home.
Just a couple of hours later the shade of the Cascade Mountains enveloped us as we curved our way through Snoqualmie Pass. We drove across the bottom of a tunnel of Evergreen trees, dense and dark. A deep sense of dread began to spread through me, disguising itself as a stomach ache. I was so out of touch with my feelings in those days, the emotional usually expressed itself physically. I felt off. The glory of my triumphant return home was draining out of me and soon I was on edge. Had I been able to peer into the future at that moment I would have insisted we turn the car right back around for Arizona. Continue reading
Midway through seventh grade the Army relocated us yet again. From then until I finished my freshman year of high school we spent our days smack dab in the middle of nowhere in a pale blue, aging, two-floor duplex on the crest of a wooded, grassy hill in sprawling Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
If you look at a map and draw a line, slightly curved to follow the course of the various US and state routes involved, starting at St. Louis, then some one-hundred-thirty miles to the southwest you arrive at Fort Leonard Wood. Draw a similar line from there for a shade over two hundred miles northwest to Kansas City, and you have just sketched yourself an arm with the military base at the elbow.
If you ever lived there, however, the more appropriate analogy would involve a little more work. Continue your art by drawing yet another mildly arced line from Fort Leonard Wood until you reach Jefferson City, the capital, exactly eighty miles due north. Add another line from Fort Leonard Wood two hundred twenty miles southwest to Fayetteville, Arkansas, and finally one more from Fort Leonard Wood two hundred sixty five miles southeast to Memphis, Tennessee, and you can stop. Now set down your pencil and appreciate your little stick figure with his hands raised, as if dancing and exalting the Almighty, with Fort Leonard Wood serving as the skinny little worshiper’s armpits. Continue reading
How many times am I going to encounter the wall, stand facing it, and with a sigh of resignation retreat? How many times will I find my back against it, chafing, before curling into a ball at its base, I give up. I resent the wall. It springs up before me both unexpectedly and predictably. I’ve been crushed against it without warning, and I’ve seen it coming a mile away. The wall is immovable and unchanging, holding me apart from reaching my highest potential, blocking the way. I can’t change it. I don’t even try. Continue reading
When I was a kid I was accused of taking advantage of the situation on a frequent basis, usually by my dad, who was at times desperate to polish his only child’s impulse control flaws right out of what he saw as her diamond soul. At the time, however, I was unaware of his parental longings, understanding only that I was constantly in trouble for behaviors that felt fluid and natural. We’d come home from a camping trip, and as my parents were busy unloading gear, I’d furtively grab a marker and write the cheer “Woooo!” on the kitchen counter, heart pounding from my daring indiscretion. It was OK, because the washable ink beaded right up upon contact with the gold-flecked 1950s formica, and rubbed right off without a trace at the slightest touch. Scrawl, rub, scrawl, rub. I did it over and over, testing the limits, until I cut it too close and my dad walked in the back door with an armload of REI, catching me in the act. Face tightening into the disapproving scowl I sought to avoid at all costs, while directly courting it with my impulsive behavior, (what an exhausting paradox for an eight year-old psyche to bear), he took my arm, saying through angrily pursed lips, you’re taking advantage of the situation! And I was in trouble again. Continue reading