a river I could skate away on

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In case you forgot to watch it, The Very Sean Paul Mahoney Christmas Special from 2017 featured, as all great holiday specials do, a lot of crying in the shower and the music of Joni Mitchell. It wasn’t exactly Bing Crosby in a fucking sweater singing with “A Christmas Song” but it’s where we were. All of that said, I think I should warn you this isn’t about to be one of those fuck Christmas essays. Despite not being Christian at all, I happen love Christmas. It’s a magical holiday that somehow marries my intense love of cookies, glitter and bone-crushing melancholy. It’s also a day that seems to be 1000 times more quiet than other days. Like I love going to a downtown area on Christmas day and seeing all the closed restaurants and shops. The world finally gets sick of hearing itself talk and shuts the hell up on Christmas Day. I guess that’s what they mean by Peace On Earth? I had that moment, that moment that’s so quiet and beautiful it could only happen on Christmas Day, last year and after the month I had, I felt like I earned it.

While I don’t hate Christmas, one thing is for certain, I detest unsolicited advice. I work actively to not to be that guy who says shit like, “Well, you know what I would do…” or  worse “What you need to do is …” Ain’t nobody wanna hear advice from me that they didn’t ask for. But I will hand out this nugget for free: maybe don’t start therapy for long simmering PTSD around the holidays. Take my word on this one, kids. No, Burl Ives. There was nothing holly or jolly about my mood leading up to the holidays last year. (By the way, Christmas is the only time of year we take a moment to pause and  honor the vast talents of Burl so that’s another thing to love about the holiday.) But it all needed to happen. Revisiting old physically violent parts of my past just so they’d finally make sense sounded like a horrible idea. Frankly it sounded scary and hard and like the reason why I drank and used drugs for 20 years. Yet I was ready. I’d been sober almost 9 years, I felt loved and protected by the people in my life and I had bad ass health insurance.

Still the timing was undeniably sucky so thank god for Joni Mitchell. While I couldn’t convince Joni to go to therapy for me (she’s a frail woman, people! I’m sure she would if she could!) she at least provided a soundtrack that made my Christmas life livable. I guess this could have also been an essay about how “River” by Joni Mitchell is the best Christmas song ever. I have at least 800 compelling words to argue that point. Yet that would mean I couldn’t write about myself and that would be unacceptable. Anyway, last year that song came on at the wrong time (or the right time) just a few days before the holidays. By this point, I had been in therapy a few weeks. We had already unearthed some of the hardest, most brutal parts of my past. It was a rough but cathartic journey which resulted in a lot of tears. Insert several of the aforementioned cries in the shower here.  I wasn’t crying because I was still afraid. I wasn’t crying because the wounds were fresh. I was crying for poor, old Sean of the past. I was crying for all the things he went through and all the years he avoided feeling anything at all. I was mourning a life that was broken and that never felt like it deserved a chance to get fixed until 2009. It was all appropriate but it hurt like a motherfucker. So when Joni sang, ” I wish I had a river I could skate away on” I was like “Yeah, bitch! Me too!” Per her request it need to a be so long that it could teach my feet to fly. I needed to fly far away from this shit.

But that’s the thing,  I couldn’t. The beast of an examined life of accountability (which sounds awful when you put it that way, tbh) is that I get to walk through the fire head on, regardless of how hard an unsavory it is.  There’s no skating away or moving around it. When you listen to “River” its clear Joni had done fucked up at that point in her life and she wanted to skate away from all of it. A renowned wine drinker and cigarette smoker, I’m sure La Mitchell used the same ways to “skate away” that I did.  Drugs and alcohol were terrific for that. A few shots, a few lines and the things that I put off feeling for years were put on hold indefinitely. Yet despite all odds there I was: a person who hates facing shit doing precisely that. “River” contains a riff of a deconstructed jingle bells beneath it’s heart wrenching lyrics which fits that moment perfectly too. Here it was Christmas, a time I love with people I love and my heart was imploding. “Jingle Bells” but make it devastating.

To get outside of myself, I baked an obscene amount of cookies.  I mailed tins filled with treats to family around the country. I took cookies to work. I brought cookies to AA meetings. Maybe Mrs. Fields went through PTSD therapy too and thus her business was born? The point was I got through it and I would even say really enjoyed my holidays.  The tears still came but I talked to a network of people who got what I was going through. My sister reminded me that by looking at this difficult stuff and finally healing, I was giving myself the Christmas present of freedom. Sigh. I had really wanted a waffle iron but I knew she was right.

When Christmas 2017 finally showed up, so did the perfect light dusting of snow, just like it does on the holiday specials. My husband and I walked to a movie, like we do every year and there it was: the quiet. We were in downtown Portland but it felt like nobody else was. It was beautiful. I had more work on this journey I needed to do but in that moment everything was okay. “Peace on Earth” means something in moments like that when you’re not exactly at peace yourself.

Today, I am happy to report that while it is decidedly still coming on Christmas and they are still cutting down tress, my feet are firmly planted. Skates hung up and face forward, I don’t have the desire to skate away. I will still bake excessively. I will listen to Joni Mitchell. I will still probably cry at some point. But maybe this year, I can remind somebody else struggling of the gift of freedom, too.

A New Gratitude

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You are really concerned about Thanksgiving. I’ve seen your dozens of posts about its racism, pilgrims and gluttony. These are all really important discussions. Likewise, I find all of the seasonal slideshows about stuffing, pie and potatoes to be equally important. Your thoughts on this holiday are valid but without sounding like a dick: if these are your only thoughts on Thanksgiving, you are doing it wrong. The delicious filling on the inside of this turkey-football-inception-puzzle-holiday is gratitude. Sorry ’bout it Hokey Pokey, but gratitude is what it’s actually all about. By all means, groan at this very word and whilst you do so, listen to Ms. Patti LaBelle. Please enjoy the hats and earrings.

See, I told you. Everything goes down better with shoulder pads and drum machines. Even concepts like gratitude. Look, I get it: the idea feels beaten to death. Rightfully so, as our culture currently offers a warped and syrupy expression of gratitude. There’s 6,001 inspirational gratitude memes (none of which I will post because I love you). There’s an underdeveloped but widely spread idea that if you’re just grateful for what you have a magical gift basket of your heart’s desires will show up on your doorstep. And how could we forget the tweets using #grateful for the most annoying superficial things? Yet if we clear away all of the lame ass Pinterest sentiment, gratitude is actually some badass shit. Turns out, science agrees with me too.

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The Greater Good Center at Berkeley is filled with neuroscientists, sociologists and psychologists who’ve “launched a $3 million research initiative to expand the scientific understanding of gratitude, particularly in the key areas of health and well-being, developmental science, and social contexts.” Clearly, this group of smarties thinks gratitude is something worth investing in. So far, the research is already paying off. According to the website:

They’re finding that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits:
Stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure;
Higher levels of positive emotions;
More joy, optimism, and happiness;
Acting with more generosity and compassion;
Feeling less lonely and isolated.

Tal Ben-Sharar, who taught Harvard’s most popular course on happiness agrees too. One of his six keys to happiness is to, “Express gratitude, whenever possible. We too often take our lives for granted. Learn to appreciate and savor the wonderful things in life, from people to food, from nature to a smile.” In fact, it was his book Happier which I stumbled on back in 2010 while housesitting, that blew my brain open and catapulted me into my own gratitude practice.

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When I was drinking, I remember watching a mid-2000’s episode of Oprah (which were the best in the craziest way possible. I could write 2,500 words on the Hermes episode alone) where she said she always wrote down 5 things she was grateful for before bed. It sounded like a brilliant idea and I probably even told people I started doing it too. But the reality was Oprah was a billionaire with lots of things to be grateful for and I was a drunken coke whore who was waiting tables. Coming up with 5 things back then was certainly a challenge. Still, it stuck in my brain so when Happier fell into my lap, I started making a daily list.

Keep in mind, I’m an addict so even my  early gratitude lists were excessive. 25 things every day along with 30 minutes of meditation. Apparently, I was trying to win some Best In Spirituality ribbon. However, binging on gratitude and meditation wasn’t exactly sustainable. Luckily, the practice morphed. First, a sponsee and I started texting our gratitude lists. Soon, my sponsor and I started sharing our gratitude lists in a private thread on Facebook. It was whittled down to five things. They were written with intention and I did it every single day for years even after I moved away from my sobriety family in Los Angeles to Denver. The list and ritual with it soon moved onto the people I’ve sponsored. And lo and behold, it’s been a daily part of my life for nearly 7 years. It’s the closest thing I have to a religion, if I’m totally honest.

Listen, I really don’t know how or why gratitude works. It’s magic and that’s kind of what my whole God spiritual life thing is based on. I don’t have any specific religious God defined. I just think the magic of the universe and all things I can’t explain fall under the God umbrella and it works for me. I do know that whatever bullshit I’m grappling with seems pretty incidental when I’m able to write down a few things that made my day easier or put a smile on my face. Sometimes, just horrible days being over is something to be grateful for. Gratitude has even managed to carry me through hard times. When I’ve struggled, muscling through and finding something, anything to be grateful my outlook transforms. Anger, sadness, depression all have been loosened when I focus on what’s amazing in my life and let go. Ditto with poor health. I’m no Berkeley grad but based on my last doctor’s visit, I can tell you my blood pressure is low and I feel pretty fantastic so I gotta believe gratitude (along with some decent choices) has certainly helped. Therefore, I guess it’s only natural like as gratitude has changed me, my idea of gratitude has recently changed too.

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As I was getting ready to write this, I was listening to Alanis, as one does in sorts of research situations. My current idea of gratitude was right there as sung by a 90’s Canadian songstress:

Thank you terror
Thank you disillusionment
Thank you frailty
Thank you consequence
Thank you thank you silence

That was it! When I started this practice it was all about just the sunny, wonderful things that made my life better. Yet as I listened to this song I realized, it ain’t really just about that anymore. Today, I am also grateful for the fucked up stuff too. I’m grateful for loss, for moments of darkness and yes even for situations that feel horrible and utterly hopeless. Like homegirl said, terror, frailty, disillusionment– all of it. Crazy but it’s the honest to god’s truth because I know that the healing and wisdom gained from hard times is immeasurable and something to be thankful for. Sure, I’d like that daily list to always be filled with rainbows and life-changing pieces of chocolate cake but being grateful for heartache and sadness is even more powerful.

Thus tomorrow, on Thanksgiving day, I’ll write my gratitude list as always. It’s not lost on me that I’m lucky to even be alive and celebrating Thanksgiving so that will certainly cross my mind. As will the people I’m grateful to have known who aren’t here this year. Not being drunk on holidays always makes the list. Then the list will move onto lovely things like hugs, my cats and mashed potatoes. But by taking 3 minutes to realize that everything doesn’t suck, the holiday becomes something incredibly special to me.

And then if I’m really lucky, I get to wake up on Friday and write a new list all over again.

I’m Gonna Be Festive. Dammit.

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It might not happen today. It might not happen next week. It might be a minute, as in the kind of minute that could take a month and not just 60 seconds. But it will happen. I’m going to be happy and I’m going celebrate. For fuck’s sake.

Moving into my first holiday season* sober back in 2009, I was petrified. What if multiple listens of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” caused me to relapse? (This is a legitimate concern, by the way. Turn on Judy Garland’s version and try not to wash down a bottle of Xanax with a tumbler of Jim Beam.) What if I was horribly miserable during the most wonderful time of the year? What if my first set of sober holidays were like everything else that first year–miraculous but really difficult? I voiced these concerns to my first sponsor to which he replied, “Boo, you need to worry about Tuesday.” His point was I was just as likely to relapse on any random day of the week than I was on the holidays. Fair enough. After all, I never needed a calendar holiday to justify being a hot wasted mess. He also said, I might as well find joy in the holidays and make them my own. In other words, embrace them or get crushed by them. I am also what’s been diagnosed as a “massive depressive” which means I even have to do depression more over the top and more dramatic than the average bear and therefore this is a good strategy. To say that holidays can be triggering for us residents of Depression Island (best. reality. show. ever.) is an understatement of the “maybe the planet is kind of getting hotter” variety. I have found that if I do fun things, watch ridiculous holiday movies, eat copious amounts of bake goods and hang out with people I love, the whole depressing holiday stigma melts away.

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Now, it should be mentioned again that I have no religious affiliation attached to the holidays and use them instead to celebrate peace on Earth and practice kindness. It’s also a nice time of year to breathe and enjoy beauty. This year, 2016 the year wherein Bowie, Prince and Cohen said, “You’re on your own, bitches!” it’s more vital and more challenging than ever to deck the halls. Don’t think I haven’t considered trying to operate the rest of 2016 as well as the holidays underneath a pile of cats and blankets (best. Christmas. special. ever). After all, it’s just 49 days. I think if I hid for 49 days people wouldn’t even be concerned. I mean Olivia Newton-John’s boyfriend disappeared like 10 years ago and we’re still not that worried about it.

What happened on Tuesday–which I won’t refer to by name for the sanctity of the internet and out of respect for you the reader– would be reason enough to zip up my massive depressive bodysuit and just linger there until further notice. Granted that event and the person at the center of that event are fucking terrifying and depressing. As stated at the top of the post, it will take a while for me to get over the shock and despair which has been sprinkled over humanity like sugar cookie decorations. There’s no time limit on sadness, by the way. I’ve read these horse shit posts over the last few days that are all, “Oh. Maybe it won’t be so bad. And now we can all breathe.” (By the way, STFU Oprah) Um. No. Fuck you. Maybe we’re not ready to breathe. Maybe we’re not ready to hop into action and fight the power either. Maybe we just need to eat Chinese food and watch a show about Queen Elizabeth. Okay? Stop telling me to fucking getting over it or to galvanize, Internet. I need to be still, hug my husband and my cats and not move too much until further notice.

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I will most likely move from wanting to slap everyone to wanting to hug everyone on Thanksgiving. It is my favorite holiday. There’s no gifts. There’s no out of whack expectations. Just pie and gratitude. I adore cooking and eating with my favorite people so Thanksgiving is kind of like my version of the Super Bowl. Last year was magical as we ate dinner and watched the snow fall. We had my grandma over along with other beloved family members. This year, grandma is no longer here and the group will be tiny. But the truth is I actually have a lot to be grateful for. I took several amazing trips to different parts of the world. I saw some amazing art and read incredible stuff. I got on the other side of pneumonia that nearly killed me and now feel better than ever. Creatively, I’ve had a complete overhaul and renaissance that can only be described as whoa. And I’ve been lucky enough to stay sober and present through some heavy, heartbreaking shit. Basically, I have a lot of gratitude to be expressed this Thanksgiving and will eat the amount of pie proportional to said gratitude.

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Right after that, it’ll be Christmas. The thing I like about Christmas is that it gives me a moment to be quiet and be still. Snowmen, twinkling lights and yes, even some of that sad ass music in the background are all things I look forward to. As suggested, I’ve grown into making the holidays my own. Every year, my husband and I along with a bunch of old Jewish couples go to the movies on Christmas Day. We eat brunch. We do gifts and then we sit in the dark and watch a movie. It’s heaven and I can’t wait to do it again. The thing is: no person, no event, no election can rob beauty from my life. No political climate can negate the truth that my life is beautiful and should be celebrated as such. Combatting the external shittiness of the world starts with me having joy. In fact, it feels more important than ever right now. And when the time is right and I feel less fragile, look the hell out.

 

*Read more about my first holiday sober in a Tough Cookie Christmas available here! 

I Won’t Ruin Your Barbecue. You’re Welcome.

solo cups.jpgFor the eighth Fourth of July in a row, I will not ruin your barbecue. As much as I know you’d like me to show up at your dignified, patriotic while still being kitschy backyard fiesta, I will not. This means I won’t arrive at your function already buzzed even though it’s only 2pm. Ditto I won’t fall down in your entryway at 5pm. And, finally, I won’t sneak away from the party to send a series of crazy text messages trying to find cocaine. I know you’re disappointed but that’s the way it is.

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See, the summer of 2008, I used up more than my share of “Hot Mess In The Middle of The Afternoon” coupons. There was a series of backyard summery jamborees hosted by my best friend and at all of them I was the biggest mess in the room. This is a feat because outside of a Hemingway family reunion never has there been a group who can drink their faces off like this group. Nevertheless, this was the summer where my drinking went from festive to horribly sad in about 60 seconds. A friend at one of these get-togethers even remarked,” Wow. Sean, every time I see you at one of these things, you’re pretty drunk.” This was a friend who’d been jailed on drug charges so she knew what she was talking about.

Now, I was a good guest on paper. You’d invite me for my witty banter. You’d invite me for promptness and ability to help out in the kitchen. And even if you didn’t love me for my personality, you loved me for my potato salad. Which, by the way,is pretty rock star. I take particular pride in my white person culinary abilities to nail all of your mom-type mayonnaise based salads (chicken, egg, potato,what-have-you). But as the shitstorm of alcoholism becomes a category 5, it ain’t all cheeky jokes and deviled eggs. Soon after a few drinks, you were always checking your watch and wondering when I’d leave. Now, to my credit, I was never a yeller or a drunken crier. I was more the politely drink myself into a coma type of guest. Messy for sure but contained messy. Well at least until that summer. One barbecue, which could have been Fourth of July but who knows really, stands out as the deal breaker. As I was trying to leave, knowing that I was wasted and had to get out before it got even worse, I took a tumble-down some concrete stairs. The hangover, the scraped up hand and the throbbing, bruised tailbone were unbearable. I woke up more humiliated than usual. It was painful on lots of levels but mainly because I had five months sober. I say had because until May of 2008 I had patched together five months of sobriety with no help, no support and no clue that when life happened (which it did and always does) that I would go to my only coping mechanism– booze. By later in the summer when my literal fall from grace occurred, I was still writing things in my journal like, “I’m drinking again but it’s really not a huge deal.”Well it was a huge deal and by January 2009 the party, backyard or otherwise, was finally over. I asked for help for the first time ever. I did all the stuff a lot of other people did to get sober. I felt bad for a long time but I didn’t drink or use drugs. Slowly everything improved. Oddly, that tumble during that barbecue that could have been on the Fourth of July was a big catalyst in me getting sober. I mean it took a few months. Like I said, slowly.

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So no, I won’t be able to make it to your daytime drinking, grillin’ and chillin’ Fourth of July extravaganza. It’s better off this way. I’m better off this way.

But I’ll totally make potato salad sometime if you want.