I flipped my hood up and started walking, on my way to buy beer at midnight on a work night.
I had gotten up from my desk back in the apartment when the panic set in that I wouldn’t have enough of what I called “my medicine” to get me through the assignment I was working on and then carry me on to maybe four hours of passed-out sleep.
Where writing was concerned, I was sure I was much more productive then. Fueled by wine, adrenaline and a liberal shot of rage, words flowed out of the space between sober and drunk, a space where I spent a lot of my time. Whether the words were good or not is debatable, but I thought they were better — and only possible — with a few drinks in me.
It’s a writer’s ego that values output over possible self-annihilation. Can’t do it if you’re dead or incapacitated, but what’s that small detail? Bless our hearts.
That night, dwelling on my bullshit logic, I put on my shoes and found a jacket. It was a rainy night in July and not a good night for walking in the dark, but this errand transcended weather conditions and common sense. My mind flitted to a few recent attacks in my neighborhood, people shooting pedestrians with Tazers at night from car windows. I wondered what that would feel like. I thought, also, about the fact that I needed to be at work, allegedly helping people, by 9 a.m. I knew the day that awaited me, how I would hate it and curse myself the whole way through it. I knew how another drink wouldn’t help now anyway, how nothing could take the edge off, and how the edge was everything and all of me. But this was how it was. This was the story I’d written for myself, somewhere between buzzed and oblivion.
I stood on a curb and stared at the DON’T WALK sign. I don’t know if that sign is what made the difference, and I hope not because it doesn’t even make sense. I don’t know if it was exhaustion, my grandmother in heaven praying a million rosaries or a higher power I mostly currently envision as a clean and sober Ozzy Osbourne. But as that sign changed to green, two thoughts flashed through my brain:
This is legitimately insane behavior.
Maybe this isn’t how it has to be.
[pullquote]I wish I could give another person in the hell I was living the map to the exact coordinates to where I was when I got up, closed the stall door behind me, looked plainly at my reflection in the mirror and said aloud, “Is this where this stops?” The answer was yes.[/pullquote]
These seem like entirely rational truths to normal people, I know; the ultimate “duh.” But for me these thoughts were a miracle, salvation gasping for air within a 25-year-old solid wall of denial, fear and my involuntary commitment to my existence as it was — which was, of course, not at all how I’d planned it. This misery hadn’t been in my yearbooks or my college essays or any of my journals or late-night dreaming. It was a physical and psychological nightmare, something that felt inevitable by the time it snuck in and stayed.
The thoughts passed, and I kept walking. I bought beer and drank it. I went to work and trembled at my desk. I dissolved into the daily panic attack by noon, sweating in the air-conditioned office, convinced it was a heart attack this time. This was it. I should call my family and apologize for, oh, everything. I sat on a toilet lid in a bathroom stall in sensible professional clothes, praying for a resolution. Stroke out here and end the misery, or? I had no Plan B.
The tiny curb thought from the night before reemerged. Another flash that maybe this wasn’t how things had to be. I felt it both intensely within and beyond me. And at that precise moment on a toilet seat, I decided I wanted to live a little more than I didn’t. It was one way one second and another the next.
I wish I could give another person in the hell I was living the map to the exact coordinates to where I was when I got up, closed the stall door behind me, looked plainly at my reflection in the mirror and said aloud, “Is this where this stops?” The answer was yes.
I’d like to tell someone else staring down a calendar of inevitably bad days how or when it is grace will show up. It’s when you walk out of that restroom, walk back to your office, reach out to another sober person on chat and have the tiniest beginnings of humility to say “Hi, so. If I stop drinking I’m afraid I’ll never write again.” And to believe her when she says, “You will and better than you can imagine.”
This would be extremely useful information to have for a person who is deep down in it, but I can’t do that. I can’t know anyone else’s tipping point. I barely understand mine. But what I do know — which is less than I ever did in some ways, but deeper in the tiny, crucial ways — is that grace is generally less beautiful on the surface than it’s rumored to be when it pulls up a chair to sit down at your table. It’s surrender, and it’s a mess and the truest freedom we’ll ever have, but which we believe mostly looks like giving up.
Grace is in asking for help when I’m programmed to choose self-reliance every time, even if that means driving my life into a brick wall over and over.
Grace wanted me to let a friend I hadn’t seen in years walk me through a door three days after I left that bathroom stall — the grace of knowing what I had to do, whether I understood it or not — and hearing my exact story from a 70-year-old man with very few teeth, very few of my life’s details and every single one of my feelings. Grace has played out more recently in listening when I’m inclined to talk, showing up when I don’t feel like it but know I must, in watching other people succeed and experiencing poignant, unrecognizable joy, and in finally feeling like my feet are on a right, if occasionally deeply uncomfortable, path. Grace is in unease and overdue forgiveness, and it is deeply involved in letting go.
I look back and freak myself out sometimes at how small my window was to grab hold of that grace. It’s just that at that moment, the pain cut deep enough to summon the cooperation of my eyes and ears and mouth and hands and feet.
I occasionally think of grace as a woman. And I know she will always bring me back full circle to myself if I do only this: cooperate just a little with what is so instead of what I think should be, read the signs around me and simply slip my hand into hers.