Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Do Not Disturb

Day 78

Nothing sends me spiraling off into crazy-land faster than the phrases “do not disturb” and “all night long.” I wrote about “all night long” here. Now for the classic hotel door knob hanger.

Early on there was the sickeningly-sweet anticipation, the arousal, the mystique. As a teen, watching couples check in at the front desk made my heart thump in my chest - someday that would be me. Someday I would drag my luggage down a mauve hallway and into a room smelling faintly of bleach, hang out the Do Not Disturb sign, then triple-lock the door. My lover and I wouldn't be listening nervously for my parents' bedroom door. There wouldn't be a keep-your-underwear-on rule. We'd get lost in a cozy nest of pillows and sheets and blankets, and kiss for hours. Later, in the darkness, warmth and exploration would melt into embrace and ecstasy. I knew that it would be about us, not me, and that I'd need to to balance my desires with attention to hers. It never occurred to me that she wouldn't have desires.

Yesterday we slept an hour past noon. This way we could avoid Sexday, sometimes called “Monday.” The church office takes Mondays off (since every Sunday is like college finals.) On Sexday Linsey's home with me and both kids are in school. We slept because I was all pissy about a little verbal brawl the night before. It's an old argument for us. I have a much easier time breaking for a recharge. When I'm spent, I know I'm not good for much until I take care of my needs. For food, sleep, intimacy, distraction. Then when I get back to work, I'm a focused and efficient dynamo. She can't hang the Do Not Disturb sign until the dishwasher's fixed and we refinance the house. Nothing new for us here. If she ran the world, we'd die on the inside, but we'd look damn sharp while we did it. If I ran things, love would be king, but we'd die of starvation when we ran out of cheez-its.

Don't assume I'm not OK with post-crisis love. In recovery, I'm chipping away at the fantasy, and building something beautiful and tender with the pieces I pick up. We used to understand each other's tastes, in music and movies. Now we understand each other. We're giving to each other the most vulnerable and child-like places in our hearts, like those little macaroni-covered gifts your kids make for you in kindergarten. And it's amazing on that front.

But when it comes to sex, we're still driving a used car that makes lots of disconcerting rattles and might need a tow at any moment. And I don't understand this burning need to know I'm not alone in this. I don't understand why my deepest sighs of relief happen while reading about people with similar problems. Check this one out. First, get this picture in your head: Childhood scars make her reject me sexually, I codependently conclude I'm repulsive and try harder to be attractive and loving, the increased affection intensifies her discomfort and defenses, I crash harder and find stupider ways to get numb; we do this dance for a decade or so. Now read this post at Discovering Recovering. Cool, right?

I just don't know what's “normal” for pre-sex cues. I've accepted that she won't want me like I want her; she's not a guy. I have a responsibility to woo and romance her, to make her feel appreciated and adored. She needs to feel safe and I need to earn her trust by being a trustworthy person. She speaks a “love language” that gets turned-on when she smells Pine-Sol. OK, so I'll clean the kitchen and take out the trash.

But I'm like a chick. I need to talk first, to caress and be caressed. I need her to really love me, and at least kinda want me. Otherwise, I'm not up for the job. Affection=Erection. I keep reading in marriage books that it's a myth that men are always ready to go. When she's verbally dismissive of me, emotionally distant, and flinches when I touch her, the night's pretty much over for me. Then if she asks me when I'm gonna be done “sulking” I start thinking about how fast I'd have to go to punch my van through the guard rails on the 91 East to 57 North overpass. Then I'm really not in the mood. Whatever. We talk a lot in therapy about diffusing our building-up-to-sex booby traps.

I'm angry, I know, and I'm exaggerating and being one-sided and unfair. And yes, I'm sulking. I just wanna hang that sign on my doorknob.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

My River Isis

[Photo by ippei+janine under a Creative Commons License]

Better never to have met you in my dream than to wake and reach for hands that are not there.
-Otomo No Yakamochi

Day 75

Somewhere in the shadows of my emotional landscape, obscured by dense and long-forgotten trees and grasses, there's a hidden stream. Deep and clear and dark, it runs with forbidden and frighteningly powerful emotions. Tenderness and sorrow spill over its banks. I can place my hand here in the moist earth and feel the cool slip between my fingers, and I can bare it. I've written songs here, sang the songs of others. It's the deeper waters that are swift and dangerous. There are pieces of my life down there, visible in the flashes of sunlight that occasionally stab through the ferns and vine-draped branches. I'm afraid of these pieces and I fiercely protect them. If the undercurrent sweeps them away, some remembered part of me will wither and die. This glade is pungent with the aroma of poetry. Prose is impotent here, as the rational has no power.

This river of memories is where I must go to sort through the lost women in my life. Those I've left behind. One of the things I did when I used (chemicals) and acted out (pornography) was allow myself to bathe in these waters. With my inhibitions artificially lowered, I could breathe life into those buried memories, and re-animate them. The tangled cascade of sensations that make up first love (or forbidden love) would come flooding back. This is no longer an option for me. It wasn't real and it wasn't healing, and it blinded me to life. Authentic experiences are a washed-out gray when you're using. You can't see the earth after staring at the sun.

So as I do my fearless moral inventory, I'm slowly plumbing my River Isis to discover its true nature. I'm trying to fish out the memories, dry them off, honor them, set them aside, and move on. I ran across one today. It was a brief online exchange with Elena. Much of the River Isis belongs to her, and I may never purge it of the scattered pieces of her presence. But I'm trying. Because to linger over the illusion of imagined and immoral love is an artificial experience. It contains none of the risk and effort and sacrifice of real love, and it can never embrace me back with grace and acceptance. This is what I share with the real, flesh-and-blood woman who sleeps in my bed.

I must leave the river for today, walk away and back into my life. If I stay I will drown. But I'll come back because I must. I've avoided this place for too long, and its power over me is incongruent with serenity. I often find myself lost here unexpectedly, and knowing the way out is essential. Most recently, I was whisked here when reading Cat's post on first love. I saw this place from my wife's point of view in a post by Willow. These words (and others) have helped me to pull back the branches and take away the mystique that fills the darkness. Maybe this landscape can be tamed after all.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Intimate Anatomy

Day 74

I found an unfamiliar lump couple of days ago. Somewhere that I don't really want to mention. But being that this is an anonymous blog, what the hey, I'll go ahead and use it as a launching point. Proceed at your own risk. You've been warned.

First of all, the lump. I finally broke down and googled “lump in p*n*s” and found this article about Peyronie's disease. It's not required reading. Basically, it turns out to be a relatively common, not terribly awful, embarrassing nuisance. While testicular cancer is a significant problem, cancer in this area is pretty rare. Gonna get it checked out anyway. Definitely will need a male physician. Feels kinda like I should leave the money on the nightstand.

I do this freak-out thing with medical stuff. First time was at Linsey's lamaze classes. Each time words like “colostrum”, “episiotomy”, or “mucous plug” were used, I had a little mini panic-attack. The attacks began to get closer together, and when they were about 5 minutes apart and lasted for 45 seconds each, I think my water broke or something because I started sweating profusely and hyperventilating. Focused breathing techniques and self-calming talk didn't seem to help much. I had to get up and leave the room. (Still sorry bout that, Linsey.)

This is pretty much what happened in my googling the other night. There more I read about it, the more I started nervously kneading the blankets. Just typing about it, I'm having to stop every few words and do my own little compulsive nervous habit-thingy: kneading the fabric of my jeans between my fingers. Despite my excellent poker face, my fingers are my “tell.”

You may be wondering what all this is doing in a recovery blog. Here's what: It just brings up the intensely uncomfortable fact that so very much of my sanity and insanity revolves around that particular part of my anatomy. It's been comforting in SAA to hear other guys talk about the adversarial relationship they have with it. I spent years alone on the couch at night, gulping vodka and handfuls of Benadryls, desperately trying to drown my rage at it.

About that time I happened to read a book about W. C. Minor, a Civil War vet who contributed to the first Oxford English Dictionary from a "criminal lunatic asylum." He also performed an autopeotomy. (Figure it out.) I was insanely jealous. I learned that monks sometimes use powdered licorice to dampen their sex drive. I ordered a phytoestrogen supplement from a health food store. It was for post-menopausal women, but I had read somewhere it might lower my sex drive. I fantasized about stealing my dad's gun and shooting off the offending parts. This movie played over and over in my head. It still does, like an echo.

You see, Linsey and I were best friends. Still are. I told her last weekend how nice it is to have somebody around who “gets it.” Gets my jokes, my likes, my pet peeves. She's intelligent and witty and quirky. We cry together at movies and passionately discuss books. We laugh together at the idiots on TV. But that damned sex thing kept fucking it all up, making me needy and vulnerable, and her cold and defended. We had not yet unearthed her sexual abuse. I just figured a man's sex drive was some cruel joke made up by God. I thought that everything would be manageable if I could just make it go away. My addict, spiteful and bitter, is still sulking in the corner, hoping that a cancer will come and rot away this anatomical liability. Then I could say to Linsey, You did this to me. You made it die. Are you happy now?

Enter sobriety. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. Hating my junk for being horny is like hating my throat for being thirsty. Where I used to feel hopelessly alone, there is now a circle of men, ready to talk at any moment. Many of them are addicted to pornography and chemicals and married to sexual abuse survivors.

Let me say that again.

I used to think that no one, anywhere, would ever understand my own little private hell. I now have several friends I see on a regular basis who are turning over their crap to a Higher Power, cleaning up their own mess, and learning how to love and cherish the women they've married. And I get to be one of them.

We'll get through the sex thing, Linsey. Together. It's just not the Everest I made it out to be.

I performed at Starbucks this week. I sang Ben Folds' “The Luckiest.” I don't know how to say it any better than this:

I love you more than I have
ever found a way to say
to you

That pretty much sums it up.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Falling and Not Falling

Day 68

Ashley fell off a horse last night and broke her arm. Actually, the horse stumbled and dumped her. (She made sure everybody knew this, from Grandma to the X-ray technician.) She takes weekly horseback riding lessons at a little stables. It's crammed between the freeway, some car dealerships, and the Santa Ana “River.” A little hay-lined hole in my asphalt-lined county.

At one point I kind of freaked out, realizing that the grown-up here was me, not my wife or my mom. I called our HMO and eventually got connected to the emergency room. The lady told me that I sounded pretty excited and anxious, and to be sure to drive carefully. I had to laugh. Calm down, me.

What mattered through all this was: I got to be her dad. I had the privilege of running out to her little crumpled body and putting my arm around her. I got to help her stand, wipe her eyes, and tell her that everything was gonna be OK. I got to sit next to her in the emergency room. We watched "Prince Caspian" without any sound on the little TV hanging from the ceiling. She made me cover her eyes when Susan shot the bad guys, because she couldn't stand to watch them fall off their horses. That's the kind of stuff you remember.

There is nothing in my life like hearing her call me “daddy.” Nothing. It's one of the first things on my gratitude list. Ashley's “daddy.”

When I was first getting high, I took both the kids into the pool in the middle of the night. It was freezing. James was only a few years old, and couldn't swim. They thought I was fun. I've driven them to school when I couldn't stand up straight. I've stolen DVD's with them sitting in my shopping cart. James once saw the pornography on my monitor. Mostly, I've been distracted while I made my evil plans.

I remember Ashley crying because her babysitter's daughter had been mean to her. Could she please never go back to that house? What she didn't know was that the only reason I took her there was to see that babysitter. She was the one who paid attention to me during the bad years. What if it had gone further? What if I'd slept with her? Then how much would Ashley pay for my selfishness?

In the pharmacy, I saw my drugs. The demons peaked over the wall. I heard their voices. They call it “euphoric recall.” The overwhelming warmth, the ecstasy in every nerve ending, the surrender. When I'm high I don't just forget my problems. My mind believes it's solved them all. I stop being anxious because nothing looks broken. But I “played the tape all the way through.” The lying and the loneliness, the knots in my stomach. Linsey, taking care of a broken child by herself. And Ashley, hurting and afraid.

I ignored the voices, like John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind.” Did they stop talking to me?

No, they did not.

They followed me around for a while. But that's OK. Because so did James – my bored little six-year old, tired of the emergency room. And I was sober, and I wasn't afraid.

On the way home I asked him how much he weighed. Sixty-four pounds, he said. He's proud to be over sixty pounds – this means he doesn't have to ride in a car seat. I asked him if he knew about the "chocolate bar law." I told him that he hasn't reached the eighty pound minimum for eating chocolate while riding in a car. If he didn't want to get a ticket, he'd better give me his candy bar. For some reason he wouldn't believe me, so no chocolate for me.

But I was thankful to be his dad.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Another Weekend, Another Wedding

Day 62

Feel awful. Nervous pit in my stomach, plummeting emotionally. Basically, I got all riled up because it was 9:30 and the kids still weren't in bed. I muttered something about Linsey being a permissive-indulgent parent, and locked myself in the den for some quiet. She asked me if I needed to go to my mom's, which really means “stop being a cranky asshole.” I came out when it was quiet again and she was sitting on the couch rigidly typing into her journal, which means she'll be distant and curt for a few hours. Quiet isn't really her default state – her childhood report cards commented “too interested in her neighbor's affairs.” Linsey likes to dig, just not in her own stuff. I apologized; I should move on and give her space. Codependent, codependent, codependent.

Weekend update. Saturday, my cousin Jack married his fiancé Gerri. Let me do that “I statement” thing here: I have a tough time at weddings. And in the last year, there's been about ten of them. Close family, distant family, friends, church people. The church ones included a few that were basically rentals of our facilities; I was just the “sound guy” in the booth, starting the syrupy sweet slide show and playing Celine Dione.

Most of the time, the ceremonies aren't too terribly triggering. I've actually tried to listen, to be teachable and open. I think what hit me the hardest several months back was really hearing the phrase “for better or for worse.” Leaving isn't an option. Using or suicide or checking out isn't an option. Just a good reminder to have on the table.

It's the receptions that kill me. Over the years, I've been in this panic-attack vicious cycle of nervously anticipating that I will feel upset at the reception, then feeling upset at the reception, then remembering feeling upset at the reception and feeling nervous about feeling upset at the next reception, and feeling upset about feeling nervous about feeling upset at the next reception. Whatever.

Our cultural formula is to move from sacred-ish stuff at the ceremony to increasingly sexual stuff at the reception. And each of those sexy little traditions – clinking glasses for kisses, the garter belt toss – is another tripped land mine for me. I have typically responded by remembering what I didn't have (closeness and intimacy and warmth) and concluding that I'll never have it. Then I've watched my body react to the nausea by shutting down my systems, one by one. I stop hearing people talking, I stop tasting my food. I stop being upset or nervous or excited. I stop remembering, and I sever my connection to the room I'm in. The romantic lighting and the dance floor go away, and I stop smelling the catered food and the alcohol. I'm ready to go, now, I tell Linsey. Drive me home and let me sleep.

Some song says “all night long,” again, and I am sick, again, that we never had “all night long.” There's a reason for “all night long,” you know. Endorphins and hormones are released in early courtship that give you boundless energy, that make you invincible. I read it in a book. A book that I had to bury, with the rest, because it triggered me. I had those hormones, that energy, and she didn't. They don't come back, it said. Not like that.

But I made a decision, an act of volition, that I would be Linsey's partner this weekend. Not her sulky, helpless man-child. I wasn't perfect. I screamed at her on the phone that I was going to kill myself on the way to the rehearsal. I was mad because it made her feel uncomfortable that I never made it into the office Friday. I was running endless errands and doing wedding-stuff, I told her. Not using, hallucinating, floating in a delirium of porn, like I used to do. Don't you trust me after 60 days??!? Silly Linsey.

But aside from that little detour into crazy-land, I did a good job. I apologized for being impossible, took a deep breath, and moved on. I took it one moment at a time, and filled a mental scrapbook with memories of being a groomsman, a cousin, and a friend. It helped that Jack has been in recovery with me, and that we were surrounded by program people from the rehearsal to the alcohol-free reception.

Jack's mom asked me to write a song for their mother-son dance. I sang it live, while they danced, and people loved it. Everybody cried. They were speechless and wide-eyed and breathless. They wanted to know if they could buy it for their weddings. Of course, that wasn't enough for me. I felt insecure and stupid and sick. What if I sounded amateur? Or if my dedication beforehand wasn't funny? There's some big bag of psychological crap there, and I'm just starting to tear into it.

Most importantly, I danced with Linsey. Just two songs. But I held her and kissed her. I enjoyed it and experienced it. And I'm still here, writing about it. No drama, no crisis, just a lot of gear to shlep out to the car and an uneventful ride home. What a blessing. That's serenity.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Out of Isolation

Day 58

I can't hide anymore. And I don't know if I'm cool with this.

A few years back I jumped on the MySpace bandwagon. (Basically, to flirt with someone else's wife, but that's a story for another post.) I quickly learned how rigid the walls were between my carefully separated circles of friends.

I mean, I'm a pretty nice, easy-going guy, and a people-pleaser to boot. So basically, I will get along with you. Maybe you think the earth is 6,000 years old, and you don't drink or smoke, and you voted for McCain. Let's get coffee! Maybe you use a Mac, love Jon Stewart, and shop at Trader Joe's. Fine, we'll get tea! (Maybe you're a brilliant anarchist alcoholic who composes subversive post-modern music – In that case, sorry I never came back for my Master's Degree...) The point is, I get along with many crowds, but they don't necessarily get along with each other.

So with the MySpace thing, I had to pick one single version of me that everyone would see. I chose to see it as a growing experience, a chance to be more honest with all my friends, whether they drive a Prius or a Suburban. It was a really big deal for me. I don't think I knew how much of a chameleon I'd been.

Fast forward a few years: Myspace is out, FaceBook is in, the economy's crashed, Britney's back on tour, my grandma still doesn't have email. My personality is much healthier. More publicly integrated. I'm a Christian, I'm a composer, I'm a political moderate. I like Chocodiles. Pretty much the only schism left is the one between my sober self and my addict. But it's been a big one. If you read what I write here, you know my addict. If you also know my real name, then you're in a pretty small crowd. And that's where the madness comes in. Trying to be a musician/encourager/father on the outside, and hiding in desperate hopelessness in my living room at night. This is where all those years playing piano recitals actually hurt me. I learned to smile for you, perform for you, look competent for you, no matter what was going on inside.

And I learned it well. What I've heard, over and over and over, is that I never make mistakes. Well, I do. I'm just really really good at looking like I know what I'm doing. One example should cover it. I played for my friend Claire's wedding a while back. I was deathly ill, disorganized, late, unprepared etc. Classic Eli. I couldn't find my music the day of the wedding. I eventually realized I'd left it at the church, which was in totally the wrong direction. I was so late that I pushed my Chevy Astro to 100 mph several times on the way there. This is simply too fast.

I sang and played live for their first dance at the reception. I had never practiced the song all the way through, and was reading some of it for the first time. Everything turned out beautifully. I'm not bragging, I'm ashamed. I literally risked my life on the freeway that day. It was stupid.

Oh wow, is it uncomfortable to let people in on that flaky, insecure, afraid-of-failure me. Every step away from isolation and towards disclosure has been a little battle. I will never forget walking into my first few AA meetings. That kind of honesty, that vulnerability, was contrary to everything I'd ever learned about survival. Linsey sometimes points out my continued (unintentional?) efforts to keep the details of my personal life slippery. I show my therapist one part of the picture, my sponsor another, my 12-step groups another. But I'm trying to get past this. I'm trying, a little at a time, to look at all the pieces in my mosaic - what I'm proud of, thankful for, ashamed of, afraid of. And it hurts. It really does. With a kind of searing heat that I didn't know existed. There's just no way around it. But the miracle is that even if I pass out from the pain, I wake up again, and life's a little bit better.

On a practical level, it all comes down to a few silly things: I don't like to talk on the phone. I don't like to be noticed. I don't like it when program people ask me how I'm doing. So when a couple of people checked in on me this week, and I felt happy, I knew that something good is happening in my life. I'm and addict, and I'm struggling, and you still cared enough to ask me where I'd been, and remind me to keep at it. I'm here, I will, and most of all, thanks.