16 winters ago, on a Friday evening just before a looming ice storm set in on the cold Kansas prairie, my 7 year old little girl was pulling beach towels out of closets to make a “temporary home” in a cardboard box just outside our kitchen door for a stray kitty. She had already named the cat “Katy,” so we knew she was probably going to become a permanent fixture on our 34 acres out in the country.
The following spring, Katy unexpectedly (to us “city pups,” unfamiliar with the ways of country life) gave birth to a litter of adorable kittens. For months, Isa and Mario’s entertainment focused around playing with the kittens. Vanilla ended up being the only one of the litter that survived. Katy was viciously killed by a couple of stray dogs while defending her kittens. To say we were shocked by the harsh realities of country animal life would be an understatement. The best we could do was adopt Vanilla (whom previously my husband had insisted would remain a garage cat) and bring him indoors to complete our family. And that is where he has stayed for 15 1/2 years.
These past couple of weeks, Vanilla slowly tapered off his eating until quitting completely the last 5 days of his life. We all had our chances to say goodbye, but the hardest was with his Mommy, Isa, via FaceTime from her work retreat. It’s so hard doing the compassionate thing when you’ve grown up with a pet. Isa used to come home from 2nd grade and stand on our back deck calling Vanilla’s name. Before long, he’d come running up from the wooded canyon behind our house, following the sound of her sweet voice. He was half wild (feral!) kitty and half domesticated pet and that’s how he lived until his last breath.
This morning was extremely bittersweet. We watched him stumble to the back door for a breath of fresh air after carrying him down from his last night in our bed. He bathed in the sunlight of our floor to ceiling windows in the den one last time. And if he could have mustered the strength, I know he would have loved to have hissed at Pudgey, the innocent but vacuous cocker spaniel. We loved him well. I can only hope he is on my Dad’s lap in heaven right now hearing about what a “Good Ole’ Good Boy” he is.
6 years ago this week I walked into a noon Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at Unity Temple on the Country Club Plaza, burst into tears and said, “I think I am an alcoholic.” Immediately, that community supported me and over the next 12 months I began to understand that “there is another way to live.”
As anyone who has struggled with alcohol addiction will tell you, the worst part is the period of time leading up to admitting you are powerless over alcohol. In the 2 years leading up to that day in 2015 when I finally walked into an AA meeting, I spent more and more time bargaining with this insatiable beast that was taking my life and everything I cared about from me. In the search for temporary relief from anxiety, insecurity, worry and fear, what I found was just an enormous emptiness. I was ashamed of my inability to simply stop hurting myself and others. Alcohol was on a mission to destroy my life yet I continued to open that bottle of vino fino tinto every afternoon at 5 o’ clock, the witching hour.
Living a sober life has given me many tools for navigating the scary world of FEELINGS. I used to hide from my feelings behind a big glass of red wine, but now I address my problems, if not with confidence, at least with purpose – to find a reasonable solution that does not compromise my values or boundaries.
To celebrate my 6th Sober Birthday, I want to share 6 “I Can” statements I work on constantly:
Create a life I love built on new beliefs about the person I am and who I choose to be going forward;
Live with discomfort, knowing that in the end what is meant for me will happen at the right time;
Tolerate the disapproval of someone I love, knowing that compromising my authentic self in exchange for another person’s affection or approval is self-destructive;
Accept contradictions of all kinds without the need to debate or argue;
Seek support rather than comfort when the need arises;
Support others without expecting anything in return.
Every sober breath is a gift. I have had 2,190 beautiful days in recovery. Thank you for celebrating with me!
I can’t believe I am having conversations with friends now about “Aging in Place.” 34 years ago this weekend, I packed my Subaru XT Coupe, popped in my favorite “Bob Marley” cassette tape, and moved to Kansas City to start the next chapter of my life. I started graduate school and earned a certificate in gerontology studies….an abstract concept I never expected to really experience personally (at least so soon). I would sit in mind-numbingly boring gerontology classes learning about the “Plaza Relocation Project” and Medicare, only halfway connecting with the stories I heard about the negative impacts on aging Kansas Citians when the Country Club Plaza began transforming from an aging-friendly urban oasis to a collection of upscale boutiques and restaurants to attract tourists. There used to be a substantial drug store and grocery store on the Plaza, conveniences enabling residents to comfortably transition into their later years at home instead of “care facilities.”
Beginning in the early 1980’s, long-time aging residents of high rise apartments were swiftly upended as part of a larger “plan” to make the Plaza less residential and more commercial. As a graduate student, I lived in one of the last remaining high rises near the Plaza in the sweetest studio apartment (forever my favorite) among aging residents. It had a restaurant and nail salon and was a community of people on the brink of extinction. A few years after I moved out, The University of Missouri tore it down (Twin Oaks Apartments, then dubbed “Twin Croaks” by the UMKC students because of the frequent EMS visits) to build student housing. I used to ride the elevator with visiting actors with the Missouri Repertory Theater and was often greeted by a Humpty Dumpty character getting off my 11th floor telling me, “I’d like to ride in your car!” It was a colorful life but not sustainable according to the local community planners.
Today, I think about aging in place every day. In fact, my husband and I recently tried to watch the film, “I Really Care” (Rosamund Pike portrays a corrupt legal guardian who deftly divests competent and financially stable Dianne Wiest of her decision-making rights and locks her “in a home”), and quickly turned it off in disgust and horror. That’s less than a decade away for us! Could it be us? Surely not. We have friends making decisions all across the board about retirement: one couple recently decided the Midwest wasn’t for them and moved to Florida to become boat repairmen in a coastal town. Another friend dropped her second child off at college and began her dream nomadic lifestyle of full-time travel writing and speaking. She meets up with her adult sons a few times a year at Airbnbs. In shock, I asked her, “But WHO will get the same china and tree out for Christmas each year?”. She laughed at my absurd question because she had been planning for this transition and shedding possessions that weighed her down for many years.
I know where I fall on this very important question: I am staying right where I am as long as I can and giving back to the community that has given my family so much. I will be open to new friendships with people of all ages. I will volunteer for organizations like CASA and Big Brothers Big Sisters. And I will continue the work I recently began at an outpatient medical rehab for people with disabilities for as long as I physically can. Eventually, I hope to write and publish a memoir. My husband wants to get a lab puppy and “tinker” around the house. We both want to learn Spanish. He has a huge treasure trove of family photos he plans to cull, organize, restore and possibly publish. We won’t be bored. Hopefully we will have grandchildren and we will walk with them to the creek in our neighborhood and get ice cream in a neighborhood creamery.
Imagine my delight yesterday when one of my close girlfriends who has always planned to retire with her husband on the West Coast confided, “We are going to age in place.” Immediately, I imagined us as old women visiting the Nelson Atkins Museum and dining at Rozzelle Court together. Or riding the train at the Kansas City Zoo with our grandchildren. A fellow “ager in placer ” has emerged and I am overjoyed!
At our age, my husband and I are starting to watch people shed their professional lives and chase their dreams, sometimes taking them far away. I can’t imagine living anywhere else but the Midwest. We once owned 34 acres but did not have much time to enjoy it. There may be a future acre or two with a pond and an old farmhouse also, who knows. My friend’s announcement over lunch yesterday gave me hope and inspiration for the not too distant future we have waiting. According to “Blue Zones,” a longevity research project, people who live longest move naturally (e.g., walking outdoors, gardening) and have strong social/community ties. They also eat a plant-based diet fortified with lots of legumes and nuts. I look at it this way: if I have to move my body and eat healthy foods, I’d rather do it in Kansas City with the people I love most. Happy Aging in Place!
Last year, I had a remarkable opportunity to change my life and I took it. I reached out to a friend I had once volunteered for, asking her if her organization was accepting volunteers during the pandemic. I had decided not to return to my full-time job as a middle school paraprofessional and was looking for something to do maybe 2 times a week. She responded quickly, “No, but there is a job opening that would be perfect for you.” JOB, I thought? As in, 5 days a week with responsibilities, deadlines, stress, conflict, exhaustion at age 55 kind of job? To be honest, an unexpected opportunity is the way every wonderful thing has happened in my life. As scared as her response made me, my gut instinct was to move forward and maybe take the leap.
I became a Rehab Assistant in a Pediatric & Adolescent Medical Rehab with absolutely no significant knowledge of the types of conditions the patients have or the therapies they receive. I only knew how a Mother’s heart would communicate with the children and families and support the therapists providing the services. It’s been the greatest professional experience of my life. I work with wonderful, dedicated people who spend their lives working to make life easier for children with disabilities and their families. As part of the team, my role in the pandemic is managing communication between caregivers and therapists. I greet the families outside the gym where the children are treated, listen to their concerns and bring them to the therapists back inside the gym at the beginning of the day. The Covid-19 pandemic has created a communication barrier between anxious families and their children’s rehabilitation therapists and my role has been to provide a sort of “Momma Love Glue” in the situation. At least this has been my interpretation of my role this year- and nobody has complained yet.
Who else can say they actually get paid to love? To my delight, in spite of the enormous challenges of working in an intensely physically and emotionally draining environment, I go home each day with a deep satisfaction from giving everything I have and know to help people inside and outside the gym succeed. And that’s where the original thought for this post comes from: my daily journey between these two worlds. Outside the gym, where families are sitting with their concerns and perhaps taking a few minutes’ respite as their children receive treatment inside the gym. Inside the gym, where rehabilitation professionals labor to make progress each visit with patients who are sometimes sleep deprived, cranky and uncooperative.
Last week, as I reached to assist a boy with cerebral palsy walk into the gym, his Mom offered a gentle reminder: “Remember: Be good. Work hard. Have a good time.” Her son repeated his Mom’s words enthusiastically as he set off to join his friends in our summer day camp. 12 hours later, after tumbling into my bed exhausted, I woke up, tearful, as I often do, at the memory of that precious scene I had the privilege to witness the day before.
Inside the gym, on this same day, I realized I had created a mess of our schedule by overlooking a couple of teammates’ vacations. Suddenly, because of my poor organizational skills, we were scrambling to make a plan to provide a safely socially distanced and supervised lunch for our patients. Inside the gym, our daily challenge as a team is to solve problems quickly so therapy can continue moving forward. We pivot a lot! So much my head is spinning sometimes (I literally have vertigo this summer). In all these pivots that sometimes my oversights have caused, NOT ONCE has a teammate judged, harshly criticized or humiliated me. My friend, our social worker, smiles and says to me, in my frustration, “Use your resources, Joan.” And that I have.
Last week I got to plan a tie-dye party for some of our adolescent patients. My husband dug out a tarp from our garage (he’s been a silent part of the team!) and I gathered some pillowcases and t-shirts for the kids to choose between for their colorful creations. Fortunately, I had a young volunteer who calmly accepted my plea to read through the instructions and provide the kids some structure (not my thing!) so they could finish the project in less than an hour. When it was over, and each kid had their project properly labelled and put away for the weekend to dry, I was flooded with another rush of awareness that my job has been to bring love and fun in an otherwise intense situation for children and families. Tomorrow, I get to be there to enjoy the scene as the kids take the rubber bands off their tie-dye projects. Tomorrow I get to love again.
I had the same 24 hours each day everyone else in quarantine had. Yet I did not take on any major projects. My yard is still a disaster. I never baked sourdough bread from scratch. I couldn’t even manage to find a lousy blue lightbulb to place in my front porch light to show support and gratitude for frontline workers. What I did do was escape with my streaming services. And today I share my favorite 27 escapes with a one-sentence description of why each rang my bell.
In the Documentary Category, the Covid Winners Are
“If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast” – a delightful journey through Hollywood Icon Rob Reiner’s final years of finding meaning and purpose through friendships, nature, laughter and creativity.
“Finding Vivian Mayer” – a fascinating discovery made by an estate sale junkie leads to unraveling of decades of world-class street photography taken by an unknown and elusive woman who nannies for a living – posthumous fame is always a thrill and a bummer all at once.
“Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of our Lives” – a heartfelt, passionate tribute to a genius in the music industry who discovered Pop Icons like Whitney Houston – you’ll never get her music out of your head again, like ever.
The Always Reliable Masterpiece Theater Winners are
“Beecham House” – who cares what the storyline is, feast your eyes on 2 hottie brothers prancing about a gorgeous estate in colonized English India.
“Flesh and Blood” – a crime thriller told through the perspective of creepy neighbor and one of my favorite British Actresses, Imelda Staunton – she watched this family of 3 dysfunctional children grow up and now she narrates the story of their upending by Mom’s creepy new boyfriend.
Popular Series Winners
I still have not been able to get into “Queen’s Gambit” – here is a short list of my Covid faves –
“Little Fires Everywhere”- Reese Witherspoon vs. Kerry Washington in a suspenseful drama where class and privilege are the backdrop for 2 women coming to terms with their life choices in middle age – there just is no better mean girl than Reese!
“Mrs. America” – Cate Blanchett as Phyliis Schlafly is absolutely mind-blowing – I even found myself sympathizing with the woman I was taught to believe was the anti-Christ, You.Will.Love.
“Ozark” – The best cast of any contemporary thriller, hands down. Nobody drops an F-bomb like Ruthie and could we love Jason Bateman more?
“Tiger King” – this got so sad and dark I wasn’t able to watch the last episode which is rare for me – the underlying message for me is to let go of grudges and bad juju before they consume you!
“The English Game” – Who cares about the history of football or soccer or whatever the hell you wanna call it – Edward Holcroft in a tuxedo is possibly the closest thing to God I have ever experienced.
My Favorite Covid Acorn (“Old Lady TV”) Dramas
“Blood” – Broody Adrian Dunbar returns home after the suspicious death of his wife to make amends with his children and manages to make things worse – but looking sexy as he does it!
“Doctor Foster” – Suranne Jones is the meanest, smartest, most self-destructive woman scorned you will ever meet.
“The Split” – A family of ruthless female divorce lawyers with secrets – I paid $29.99 for this one because Nicola Walker is one of my favorite smart British actresses and does she ever deliver in this one.
“Sommerdahl Murders” -OH.MY.GAWD Peter Mygind is the hunkiest Dane solving crimes on a tiny island and trying to win back his long-neglected wife’s affections, your heart will go pitter-patter!
“A Suitable Boy” – a modest Indian family in the 1950’s attempts to marry their youngest daughter and protect their financial future – but she has ideas of her own.
Movies, Mostly Older Ones, That Kept Me Covid Company
“On Golden Pond”– when life has me melancholy, I find myself longing for an escape to this enchanting pond and the comfort of Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn’s long-burning love (and their bratty daughter, Jane Fonda).
“Emma” – the 2019 version of this Jane Austen classic – Bill Nighy steals the show as Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse, a delightful tale in every respect.
“Little Women” – the modern interpretation of this classic tale by Greta Gerwig makes my heart ache for the March sisters as they seek to fulfill their personal dreams and ambitions in a socially suitable way – plus Saoirse Ronan and Timothee Chalamet’s unrequited love story will pierce your soul.
“Babette’s Feast”– I first watched this film on a hot date with my English Professor from UMKC in 1987 after dining on Greek food so of course re-watching it in my middle age is a yearly sojourn to that time as well as a deep dive into the souls of the spinster sisters and their French maid – Isak Dineson will forever be my favorite writer of all time!
“Remains of the Day” and “Howard’s End” – Because Merchant Ivory, Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins – ole!
“Nanny McPhee” – Another cast I absolutely adore, Colin Firth as the loving and befuddled widower rescued by Emma Thompson is one of the sweetest, most charming tales I have ever seen.
“The Good Liar” – My oh my, Helen Mirren and Ian McKellan at their very best, never underestimate a woman’s ability to deceive.
“Ladies in Lavender” – every time I watch Judi Dench fall madly in love with the strange young visitor I get a little sadder, such a bittersweet and beautiful tale.
“Pillow Talk”– This is the ONE and only movie I watched with my husband because, DORIS DAY and his 1960’s youthful awakening, right?!
“I’ll See You In My Dreams” – Widow Blythe Danner gets a second chance at love with Sam Elliott – who cares if the story is good, right?!!
“The Meddler” – Oops I lied, I watched this one with my husband, also, because SUSAN SARANDON playing a meddling Italian widow describing how she foibled making spaghetti for her Italian in-laws is a hoot, plus she gets a second chance at love with security guard J.K. Simmons and sparks doth fly!
I hope you enjoyed my incomplete list of time-wasting, utterly purposeless but delicious consumption of stories during this Pandemic Year. Go Grab your Roku and STREAM. Happy Holidays.
Finally, after 5 1/2 years of periodically feeling isolated and stranded on a boring island of sober desolation, it’s here – the eloquently written, relatable ode to living a full-on riotous sober life. “The Sober Lush,” recently published by 2 sober writers, Amanda Eyre Ward and Jardine Libaire, who decided to collaborate in a series of reflections and essays about seeking pleasure and fulfillment as sober women today, is my new source of joy. So much so, I have to share you this passage as a reminder that the feelings of restlessness and anger come and go, one day at a time.
“The Arsenic Hour”
“Amanda’s Savannah relatives call it the arsenic hour – anyone with small children understands this one. It’s the hour when the screaming gets loud, when everyone seems to need you most, when a toddler smears jam on your favorite pants. Amanda feels that even when it all reaches this fever pitch she’s supposed to be calm and collected – to cook gourmet meals and maybe even be a witty wife.
The sun is setting. She stands at the stove, wondering how she’s traveled from graduate school to this kitchen, knowing she’s supposed to ‘cherish the moment’ and help with algebra and give her girl a bubble bath and feed the puppy.
Once, Amanda poured wine to stay in the kitchen. Life with or without children can feel like a slog, and sipping champagne while you do laundry can make the whole endeavor more festive. But we’ve learned that we can bear the tedium booze free. We can bear it, and it passes, one day at a time.
We can also, sometime, say no.
We can open the door and go outside, to a hammock, or the front stoop. The first time Amanda left the kitchen during the arsenic hour, she felt both guilty and fabulous.
The guilt faded.
She closed her eyes. She listened to the cicadas or the traffic, breathed in and out a few times. Her heartbeat slowed. She stayed as long as she could, and then made herself stay ten minutes longer. An evening of cartoons and Fruity Pebbles wasn’t fabulous parenting, but neither was a perfect dinner served by a woman filled with anger and Chardonnay.
We believe it’s OK for the people who love you to know that sometimes you get tired. We think it’s a great example to show kids that they can grow up to be people who take care of themselves.
The breeze was soft on Amanda’s face. Inside, Amanda’s daughter watched Amanda watch the sky, and Amanda waved back. The arsenic hour was almost over, and soon it would be bedtime.
This is what it felt like to choose herself.”
HAVE A BIG, BEAUTIFUL, DECADENT, SOULFUL, SOBER SUNDAY, FRIENDS!
I started a new job 10 weeks ago and it has changed me. I have been welcomed into the most intimate spaces in families’ lives and I will never see the world the same again. What started as a volunteer gig I did occasionally a few years ago has become the most satisfying career of my life at age 54. I am beyond grateful.
It seems like a pretty simple, basic job until you factor in the unpredictable human condition. I greet children and their families at a medical rehab for traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries every morning and accompany the children throughout their busy days of therapy. It takes courage and grit, what these children and families are going through. And I get to be the gentle, comforting face (behind a mask in a pandemic!) to offer them support.
When I started, all the details of things to remember were terrifying. Here are these parents lugging tiny children into a medical facility with wheelchairs, walkers, feeding tubes, blood sugar monitors, protective head gear and any number of other devices they need for survival. “Just meet them at the door and ask if there’s anything special their therapist needs to know,” I was told in the early days. The responsibility felt overwhelming. What if I forgot something and let a precious little one down? What if I said the wrong thing to a parent at their wit’s end? I was tempted to quit and return to my life of comfort. I couldn’t imagine why the organization had hired a 54-year old empty nester Mom instead of a hotshot 24-year old young professional with a much better memory and physical strength. It wasn’t until some of the children began grasping my wrinkled hand for comfort that I understood why I am here at this point in time. It is an honor and a privilege to get to be the person who reassures children and their families, if only long enough to offer a Capri Sun to an unhappy patient.
I cried during the interview recalling a time when a young person apologized profusely for having a seizure. I thought that would pretty much rule out any possibility of getting a call back but they hired me. So this job takes a tender heart, for sure. I am grateful to have this opportunity to be of service in small ways to families of fragile children as they move through this period of life.
All I can say is that when a child with no other means of communication smiles at you with their eyes it becomes a heart connection. I have experienced no greater love than this. It is Thanksgiving and I am a new person and for that I thank God each and everyday.
Well it’s been a week of angst and dread and anticipation so let me entertain you with a little story about how things went down on Cheeky Street.
It was last Sunday and I was in search of my authentic strand of pearls (because, like most women, I have numerous fake ones). I am not known for my tidiness or organization so off to my rat-packing closet I went with a mild sense of dread in pursuit of said strand. There is one box in the back of my closet that I have tossed sentimental things in over the years. I’ll throw something in and forget about it because going down the emotional rabbit hole of examining the contents in the box is often too much.
We have lived in our current home 10 years now so it’s been at least that long since I have taken a peak in the box in the back of my untidy closet. That’s how long it’s been since I have worn pearls. One has to ponder what kind of life, as a woman, one has been living that is completely devoid of my favorite jewel, but this is a subject for a different story.
I was not emotionally prepared for the 3 things I found in this box instead of my strand of pearls:
A beautiful snapshot of my parents visiting me and my sister in our apartment for Thanksgiving over 30 years ago. They were struggling and, not coincidentally, they were the age I am now. In the thick of a midlife reckoning . Children raised, empty nest, left to stare at the walls or make deliberate choices about the rest of the journey, together or apart. It stunned me. A wound broke open I thought had long healed. There they were, the 2 people that raised me sitting on the cheap sofa my sister and I shared in our little apartment as young women. Mom and Dad, my biggest heroes. The perspective I have after 30 years of living my own struggles shone a bright light on the beauty of what they did for each other and our family. They stayed the course and supported each other until the end, as the vow “until death us do part” said. Holding that photo in my now wrinkled hands with the ability to put myself squarely in the middle of their struggle with some inkling of how it felt for them made me proud to be their seventh child. And proud to be made of the same persevering cloth they are.
2. A love letter from my husband written during a painful turning point in our marriage. How it is I determined that this letter, among several, should make its way into this particular box full of memories, I wish I knew. Juxtaposed with the photo of my parents at midlife, the letter marking a difficult crossroads with my husband pointed toward a theme: struggle and love are one. We lose our way occasionally and what is the one thing that helps guide us? Love. I started to think that maybe these memories were tucked away in a box in the back of my closet because I wasn’t ready to deal with the pain or release the anger and resentment. Thankfully, the past 5 years of my life have been largely about confronting resentment and finding ways to assemble some tools in my life for managing it. I am glad I have stayed in the struggle for my marriage and our family, just as my parents did. My husband and I have often joked we could write a book about the huge financial and career challenges life has thrown at us and from which we emerged stronger and happier. Maybe we will.
3. Finally and perhaps most preciously, several envelopes of my children’s baby teeth. I told my son last Sunday what I had found and he was completely grossed out. “Why would you save something so gross, Mom?” he wanted to know. I thought to myself, “because you were mine.” And that’s another paradox of love, isn’t it, particularly the love for a child. I kept these momentos of childhood to remember the passage of time and hold close to my heart the struggle and beauty of caring for something outside myself, in my case 2 somethings, my daughter and son.
I never found the damn pearls. I did find empirical evidence of a life well lived, however. If there were ever a question that my parents or husband loved me, all I had to do was look inside the untidy box at the back of my disorganized closet. Sometimes life reminds us there are more important things than possessions. I am completely grateful and surrender to those times.
My son brought this beautiful croton leaf inside yesterday afternoon as he was helping my husband rake. He knew I would cherish its beauty, something he has always known about his Mom. As the seasons change and he prepares to leave the nest for good, my heart aches once again with dread of the pain of seeing his empty room and missing the sound of his shotgun laugh. Maybe this leaf will go in the untidy box and one day many years from now I will rediscover it and remember yesterday with pride, love and a heart filled with gratitude for a life well lived.
My husband and I recently did the Empty Nester basement purge thing and a newspaper article about a sad chapter in our lives resurfaced. We found ourselves at the kitchen table talking to our children, now young adults, about the details of how things unfolded when they were too young to remember. Their jaws slowly dropped as they listened 14 years later, taking in the previously hidden details of an underlying saga that spoiled our dream for them at that time. And almost ruined our marriage. But we didn’t let it and that is the happy ending.
Once upon a time my husband and I had a dream to live a simple life in a nice midwestern small town with our 2 young children. Our expectations were this change in location would provide time and space we yearned for to more fully appreciate our young family. Before they were even born, we both agreed we would “marinate our children in love.” This became challenging in our suburban setting with busy schedules and my husband’s nonstop work travel. So we chose a radically different path, my husband even changed professions, and off we went to rural America to start over.
It should have been a warning sign to us when trouble seemed to be brewing from the beginning. We purchased several acres of land that had been designated for part of a neighborhood development and then all hell broke loose. There was a dilapidated, decades-old dairy barn on the property that we viewed as “charming.” This became one of the the ways the Homeowners Association began punishing us for daring to have a dream. On numerous occasions, we were summoned to City condemnation hearings brought by the residents of the neighborhood we purchased the lots in. They wanted this (justifiably historically significant to the area) “blighting eyesore” removed from their neighborhood. We knew they just wanted to trouble, inconvenience and punish us for existing.
We tried an approach we were sure was a “win/win”: we offered to donate the dairy barn and surrounding property to the City as a public park. There was a Parks and Recreation Commission hearing for public comment and the neighbors showed up very angry. They were not interested in creating a common, beautiful space for the community to enjoy. Even though the country club lay directly behind them, they wanted more exclusivity and privacy. They didn’t want to see children and families from other neighborhoods enjoy their serene vistas. In the end, the “park” became part of their privately owned space.
In hindsight, I wish I had had the time, resources and strength to have the dairy barn designated a Historic Site and restored it to its original beauty. Instead, for our sanity, our family walked away and the City lost a beautiful treasure when the Homeowners Association got its way and tore it down, like it had never existed. This isn’t a story about winning or losing, it’s a story about how small conflicts can often cloud the greater good. And what a pity that is. A friend texted me the day the neighbors tore the beautiful barn down and I became nauseous at the thought of their celebration of their small victory. A park dedicated to the memory of the designer of the barn would have been, from a historical preservation context, the wise thing to do. Our family doesn’t live there any longer (and it’s just as well!) so I am not reminded on a daily basis of the punch in the gut.
Why is this story important or at all relevant today, in the midst of a global pandemic when people are suffering and struggling to keep the pieces of their lives together? Why should anyone care? One day, many years after the dairy barn debacle, my husband and I were struggling to begin again back in our hometown of Kansas City. I had years of lingering resentment for what I believed I had endured during the small town years and he was exhausted from reinventing himself. He looked at me one day and said something that suddenly made everything vividly clear for me: “I love taking care of this family.” In the midst of the struggle, I had started forming the belief that I was the only one “taking care of this family.” We may have even divorced if my husband hadn’t uttered those 7 words at exactly the moment I needed to hear them. That exchange has been my anchor every single day since. Telling me he loves taking care of this family meant that had always been in his heart, even on the darkest days. I had forgotten. I allowed the outside forces that began needling away at us to toss me about. I focused on the struggle instead of our basic strength, and that’s how I almost got lost forever. Now my young adult kids will know how their parents persevered and weathered tough times: because we love taking care of this family.
I woke up excited today. It’s my 5th Sober Anniversary. Reaching a point in my life where I am more excited about all the “yet to be’s” feels like an undeserved gift. On this day each year, I remember my struggle thinking about what a sober life might feel like, because I knew that none of the dreams I had would be possible without shedding the lifestyle and path I was on.
First, I have to disclose that I had 2 glasses of wine – both on separate occasions – the summer of 2018. My Sober Coach called it a “relapse,” which made me extremely angry for a long time because I didn’t want to throw away the previous 3 years of sobriety I had earned and start from scratch. I couldn’t figure out an honest way to concede the setback while creating a plan to move forward. The relapse shone a light on important things I wasn’t paying attention to: while sober, I wasn’t doing anything positive to sustain my health (my nutrition was way out of whack and I wasn’t exercising at all). I was in a major midlife transition – getting one child off to college and supporting another one through the final push of high school – with the dreaded, purposeless “empty nest” looming. Fear and anxiety gripped me as I tried to envision a future self that was not primarily mothering. What’s left, then? I think all of these stressors combined led to the idea that drinking a little wine again was an okay choice for me.
Brene Brown brilliantly summarizes midlife in one word: an “unraveling.” As a woman of this age, I am in a particularly vulnerable population susceptible to alcohol use disorder. We’re the fastest growing group of alcoholics in America. It takes effort to recognize the desire to pull away from the “rose all day” crowd – to create and stick to a plan to sustain an alcohol-free life. I’m not blaming my relapse on menopause but I’m not lying when I tell you I was blindsighted by the upheaval all the changes I could not control presented in my life. It was brutal. And I’m still angry because I think women deserve to be better prepared for it than we are. Looking back, I was searching for support, information and relief from the dozens of symptoms needling away at my quality of life for years. I was offered mare piss and a few breathing exercises to get through it. And many of my women contemporaries were drinking and divorcing their way through it. How does one navigate the biggest storm of one’s life and stay sane, married and sober? I had to create the plan that worked for me.
Here are the foundations of my personal recovery program:
Mindfulness Buddhist Nun Pema Chodron’s “Getting Unstuck” work on learning to sit with discomfort to avoid reacting to painful situations with harmful habits. We have to learn not to run away from difficulty and instead allow it to transform us. The Buddhist paradox that by refraining from our urge to scratch/avoid suffering, great peace and happiness is available. Discovering and harnessing the healing and calming power of your breathing can immediately turnaround an impulse to do or say something you will undoubtedly regret later. Many people in recovery find this through a yoga practice.
Connection Journalist Johann Hari Ted Talk, “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong. https://www.ted.com/talks/johann_hari_everything_you_think_you_know_about_addiction_is_wrong?language=en The story we have been told about addiction is wrong – people don’t choose drugs because the experience is pleasurable. Our nature as human beings is to bond and connect. People choose drugs primarily to numb their feelings of isolation.What if addiction isn’t about the chemical hooks but rather is an adaptation to your environment? He concludes that a core part of addiction is not being able to bear being present in your life without meaningful work and relationships. The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety it is connection. We find connection through purpose. In midlife, this is a challenge for many. I have had to soul search long hours and then ask for confidence to move forward and pursue what lights my soul on fire. It is happening for me now but it wouldn’t have had I stayed on my couch just hoping my life would change.
Balance Nutritionist Jolene Park’s Ted Talk, “Gray Area Drinking”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wvCMZBA7RiA You don’t have to hit “rock bottom” for drinking to be problematic. Gray Area Drinking pattern of stopping and re-starting drinking. More than likely, people who fall in this category are not talking about it with anybody. What leads people who fall into gray area drinking spectrum is untreated anxiety – the desire to reach for the “off switch” to release stress. “We don’t need any more cognitive hoops to jump through or ways to contort our willpower in an effort to fix ourselves. What we need is practical training on how to nourish our nervous system in a revolutionary and new way.” While Gray Area Drinkers may be able to stop drinking for prolonged periods of time, it is nearly impossible to sustain without understanding neurotransmitters and how to replenish them and nourish our nervous system in a comprehensive way. There are specific foods, movements and lifestyle practices that have very direct and immediate roles in boosting all our our neurotransmitters. Completely by accident, I found a chiropractor who has become a friend and nutrition and mindset coach/ally. She has given me tools to sustain this new path I am forging whereas before, there was no energy for anything other than the miserable status quo I had accepted because I was eating and thinking the wrong things. And allowing the wrong people room in my head. I see Dr. Ang for regular chiropractic adjustments and get back far more in return. She’s become part of my essential recovery team.
Support I found a Sober Coach with decades of experience and knowledge I talk to every Monday. In fact, I am about to head to my driveway for a FaceTime with Mary in my Prius in a few moments. She is so familiar with my history, challenges and personality, she has been able to provide the perfect amount of support, inspiration and camaraderie I need to stay the course in my sobriety journey. Support looks different for everyone, there is absolutely no single way to find it. Mary has helped me build self-confidence that menopause shattered and I am on a path of creating new friendships in a life I am deeply proud of and committed to.
In the early days of sobriety, I did not understand how to continue to fully give myself to my family to support their needs while having enough left over to navigate midlife. I became exhausted, exasperated and hopeless. In my “black and white” thinking, there wasn’t room for both so I just tried to keep neglecting and ignoring my own needs. That’s where the trouble had begun so many years earlier. Women are conditioned to believe it is selfish to put themselves first, and I think it was this internalized message that led to all the upheaval in my midlife transition to begin with.
A pivotal moment for me in this journey was an afternoon yoga and journaling workshop I took with Becky Vollmer, founder of “You Are Not Stuck” (https://youarenotstuck.com). She invited participants to go back as far as we wished in our lives and imagine ourselves at a time when we were genuinely excited about becoming who we most wanted to be. What did that person look like, how did she feel about herself and her future, what kinds of choices did she make? The experience transported me to my pre-teen years. A kid with a pixie cut in overalls who wrote plays, rode a dirt bike and dreamed of one day raising a family and having a writing career. I discovered she’s still there, she’s just been hidden by years of “shoulds” and fear of failure.
Anybody who has been in recovery for more than a few months will tell you it is a remarkable journey back to one’s authentic self. Aren’t you worth rediscovering?