This is why we don’t get too comfortable, was the reminder from my body as I wiped puke drool from my chin and shuffled back to bed. An hour earlier, I’d been enjoying a delightful breakfast at a busy cafe in a Southern California mountain town. Now, I was violently ill and covered in itchy rashes.
It was the tail end of a week during which I’d nearly grown tired of using the word enchanted. It ran through my mind again and I grinned as I watched locals chit-chat with the cafe owners and re-fill their coffee mugs in the simple dance of a life for a simple Saturday. I wasn’t just happy, I was content.
But halfway through a delightful crustless quiche, my stomach clenched a warning. Acting on instinct, I began to make moves; packing my belongings that had spread across the table and procuring a to-go box from the kitchen for my gluten-free pie. I stood to leave and blood rushed to my head. My face burned hot and sweat dripped behind my ears.
All was not well.
I thanked the owners for their hospitality, and heard the bell chime above my head as I pushed the door open and slid out past some sweaty and spandex-clad cyclists coming in after their morning ride. I sped out of town through the rural outskirts and up the long winding road that led to that week’s home. My stomach churned and I prepared to stop and take care of things in front of God and the cowhands if I needed to. It didn’t quite came to that.
When I pulled into the property, a mountain farmstead with a small zoo worth of animal residents, a solitary emu blocked the road over a small stone bridge. I inched my car past her and cursed her lack of compassion. Deep below the state of crisis, a tiny part of me laughed.
Once past the nonchalant emu, I parked and frantically grabbed the house keys and a plastic grocery bag (just in case) and ran for the door, where I made it inside and to the bathroom without a moment to spare. (The body’s keen sense of timing about these thing is actually incredible.)
A few violent moments later, I stabilized enough to look in the mirror and discover that a fiery red rash covered my face, neck, and torso. My scalp and lower back itched like crazy. I scrambled to make sense of it all. Had the gluten-free pie betrayed me? I forwent the usual internet search of symptoms, understanding that an inevitably fearsome and critical internet diagnosis would not serve me in this moment. I needed to be out of the AirBnb and headed for the coast in an hour.
Feebly, I packed and cleaned and double-checked drawers, and felt a sudden pang of nostalgia. In a previous life, I would sometimes travel for work several times a month. Back then (only five years but a lifetime ago), I was locked into a pendulum of achievement and celebration, during which I would commemorate successful meetings by staying out way too late looking for something I’d lost at the bottom of a glass of bourbon.
I would wake up woozy and take a numb shower to rinse off a thick film of shame before heading to whatever airport, where I would belly up to whatever depressing terminal bar, which inevitably smelled like dish rags or deeply fried food, and I’d stave off the reality of my impending hangover. I would chat up strangers and allow the banter and conviviality of shared misery to comfort me. Once home, I’d walk to the grocery store for some easy, cheesy comfort food, pick up a box of wine and settle into my couch to celebrate making it through this rollercoaster once again.
From this reflective vantage point, I am repulsed and nostalgic for the struggle. I almost feel like a badass. Look how hard I made my life! Marvel at the unnecessary difficulty of everyday tasks! Watch as I smile through the stress of living on painful, exhausting repeat!
Of course the struggle was not constant. There were several crescendos of shame that ultimately guided me to take decisive action, like the time I dropped my phone into a dive bar toilet in San Francisco and was out of touch until I replaced it back in Colorado, at which point angry messages started rolling in from people I’d pissed off the night before. Or when I woke up in Minneapolis with no memory whatsoever of the previous night, until holding up my mud-soaked coat jogged my memory and I remembered begging the hotel security guard to help me get to my room alone so the people who had roofied me wouldn’t follow me up to whatever it was they planned to do.
Or how about sobbing into my fourth dirty martini and watching the news coverage of the terrorist attacks in Paris, feeling so insurmountably sad and scared that I called everyone in my phone but got no answer, so I scrawled angry words in lipstick over my face in the bathroom mirror, but swiftly cleaned the mirror to try to erase the memory of being so angry and disappointed at myself.
Those days, it was normal to wake up regularly at 3am, sweaty and with heart pounding. I managed frequent panic attacks by clinging to comforts that couldn’t love me back – my dog, my couch, mac & cheese and homemade old fashioneds. Feeling ungrounded, disconnected and scared. Shutting out golden Colorado sunsets with window shades so I could doze in a hot, wine-induced stupor. Comforting TV in the background. Scrolling dating apps, but being too fragile to converse. Laughing it all off with friends at trivia nights, hoping that telling the story with a smile on my face would transmute deep shame into beleaguered joy. Finally getting a glimpse of reality in which my friends were mean, my habits were bad. The struggle to lose weight, save money, get out of debt, get my style right, meet some guy were not going to be solved with more of the same. What got me here wouldn’t get me there.
It’s been 3 years since I quit drinking. The pros have been numerous and obvious – more energy, easy mornings, weight lost and kept off, money saved and then spent on way more rewarding stuff. But there are also cons to quitting. Like when your senses are no longer dulled and feelings come roaring back. Suddenly you have to confront sensations that you’ve numbed or ignored for years. In my case, they escalated into sheer panic. It got my attention, and I needed to learn to feel it and let it ride.
Sitting with unfamiliar emotions is absolutely the hardest thing about being sober, and probably the hardest thing about being a person.
But contrast then to now. I’m exploring the world and myself, feeling what it feels like to be out here, rather than stuck on the couch in a reactive state of shame and fear. Unfortunately, being out in the world has consequences. For instance, you might randomly get sick in the mountains, for no apparent reason.
I considered why I may have gotten sick and a million reasons came to mind, ranging from purely physical to wildly mystical. Food poisoning, a quick-onset virus, bacterial meningitis (thanks – the Internet!), or a few bites from some of the billion ants who were crawling into the cottage from the fallen oak tree outside. Maybe I was allergic to emus. Perhaps I was physically purging that which no longer served my soul. Maybe spending quality time in nature facilitated healing from an old trauma that needed to be violently expelled. Maybe the Pluto retrograde was conjunct my natal Saturn. Or, maybe I just barfed because people barf sometimes. It’s as good a reason as any.
Time mellowed my skin, and ginger ale settled my stomach. I left the cottage and the emu and the mountains for the beach, where lovely planned cities showcased lovely public spaces with perfect landscaping and bubbling fountains for lovely, well-heeled visitors. My currently non-compliant body and I were intimidated. I felt like I was in a model home that was beautiful, intentional and fragile. One touch by unwashed hands could crumble the whole facade.
I stopped at a holistic pharmacy with a name I recognized for multivitamins and coconut water, where I accidentally dumped the contents of my backpack out on the floor at checkout. The glowing post-pilates clientele were unimpressed by my messiness. I had not adapted to fit with their squeaky clean SoCal vibe tribe.
I spent the next week near the beach north of San Diego. Even as my health recovered, the feelings of separation continued. I resented the turf lawns and twinkle lights, the weekday artisan markets and beach boot camps of this idyllic coastal village. It was clean and perfect in a way that felt unreal, and I wanted to rebel against what seemed like artifice. While wandering up and down PCH, I bought a leopard denim jacket that was ripped to shreds, in protest of perfection. (Fight the power! With shopping!)
My feelings of discomfort and alienation from this beautiful, hospitable place is surely a conversation for my therapist. But for now, on to Los Angeles.