Rehab Santa

The kids met Santa at my rehab last weekend.  For the first time in over three years we drove the forty minutes from Denver to Parker Valley Hope, my inpatient facility.  I have no other reason to drive down to Parker except that Lex from my outpatient speakers panel said Santa would be there for the Christmas party.

I have four kids ranging in age from six to twenty-one months and not one has ever met Santa.

“Maybe this is the year, babe!”  I tell David.  “And it’d be nice to walk through those glass doors not having just hit rock bottom.”

Tired from a long day, and a little itchy at the prospect of smelling all that Sleepy Time Tea wafting around again, we load into the car.  David holds my hand.  Nobody fought while the fiery winter light smacked all the west-facing facades of the sprawly new builds that rest on the prairie further south than we usually roam.

“Do you remember this?”  I asked him.

“Yes, some of it.  Do you?”

“No,” I chuckle.

There’s so much I remember now.  Ask me to recall very detail of Nell’s birth, the only one sober, and it’s crystal clear.  What did I wear to church on the Sunday our friend’s baby was dedicated?  The white dress with those beige Oxfords and a red scarf.  What were the first words David said to me in bed this morning?  “Hi.”

When parking at a rehab I suggest a spot in a far corner for a number of reasons.  We park between the two white lines and debrief the babies.

“Okay kids.  This is rehab, do you remember what rehab is?”

“This is where people go when they have cancer,” Lucy informs us.

“Close, but no.  That’s a hospital.  Good guess though, babe!  This is where Mama went after Atticus was born to get off all her medicine, and where people go to find their Love.  The people inside are just like you and Daddy and me, they are all just trying to find their New Story.  Some of them may act a little different, so come close to me if anyone makes you uncomfortable.  But I do not think that will happen.”

“Yeah, because nothing bad happens where Santa is,”  Rae Rae chimes in.

“Right.”  I affirm, and I believe she is probably correct.

While someone finishes up a testimonial about how terrific sober living is David, the kids, and I play volleyball on the sandy lot I spiked on all those months ago.  The frozen sand doesn’t feel great in my shearling-lined flats but at least we’re not stuck inside.  They said it would take thirty goddamn minutes, it’s been over an hour! I hear a youngster grumble through his cigarette.

An applause signals the end of the lecture that those newly sober and very raw patients needed, and we march toward the glass doors who welcomed me that one night in late Octoboer, 2014.  They let all the light in and all the light out.

I’ve said it before and I will say it again:  If you haven’t been to rehab you should go.

Lucy stays close because her keen observational skills tell her that there is too much Sleepy Time Tea in the air and the bloodstreams of these humans.  Dotted throughout the beanie-wearers and middle-age women who didn’t used to think beer & wine were big deals I see people wearing visitor lanyards, I go get two for my man and me.

Right there, on that sofa, a teenager held newborn baby Atticus (who turned three this past September).  My mom brought him for a visit on my second night, I think.  Maybe third?  Earlier in the day the girl told me about the abortion she had a few months before.  And then the heroin she started using so she didn’t have to remember the abortion.

“Do you want to hold him?”  I asked.

“You’d let me hold your baby?”  Tears huddled in the corners of her dull, brown eyes.

“Of course! Here!”

Twenty minutes later, after all her tears fell, she handed him back.  I won’t try and type out the thoughts and feelings I presume pumped through her prefrontal cortex.  I’ll just leave you with that Advent image—a  broken teenager and a babe.

“Mama I’m hungry!”  They all whine in unison.  So we hurry back and claim a circular table, add an extra chair because #4KidsIsTooManyKids, and I take the big girls to stand in line with me.

“This is just like at school!”  Lucy exclaims upon seeing the cafeteria trays and hair nets.

“Yep!”  I smile down at her.  Except here you eat way more sugar and coffee because they’re stimulants and your poor brain has no clue how to function free from addictive substances.  In this room is where I learned that I never ever need more than four cups of coffee in an hour again.  Ever.

It’s a BBQ blitz until the carolers arrive and freak Rae out.  Those songs are scary, Mama.  A handful of toddlers and big kids can sense the red suit approaching; they buzz around because—sugar.

There’s a woman who’s asking Atticus too many questions and not registering that “Booga” is his nickname, not my son’s actual name.  Nick has discovered at some point in the last twelve days of sobriety that he actually loves kids.  Like, a lot.  And when Nell motions for him to pick her up his glee momentarily makes me forget to say a prayer over her little body because I am 99% sure she is the first baby he’s held.

When the singing stops a woman in a red sweater informs us that Santa has arrived.

It’s such a good thing they haven’t seen the fancy guy at the Cherry Creek Mall yet.  My children explode.  They surround Santa as he sits on the rehab chairs I sat on with my sore, c-sectioned body.  It’s fucking magic.  The empty fireplace isn’t raging, but the sober smiles on all those parents’ faces warm the big room right up.

This all started with a baby.

I snuck away earlier during dessert to hand a list of all their names, ages, and genders to the business manager, an alumni of the program himself.  Nearly everyone who works at a rehab is themselves in recovery—we know that the 12-steps are a type of voodoo that only works when one stays tethered to the Truth.

We know that rehab and recovery are close as you’ll get to Jesus on this side of Heaven.

The alcoholic-turned-businessman hurries off and wraps up four presents for my four monsters.  Santa calls their four beautiful names and then we decide to head out, bedtime waits for no man.  Hug Amanda, wave to Nick, smile at the smokers flanking the walkway to our SUV.

The last time I left this place I was thinking thoughts so expansive I was sure I had become a superhuman at some point during my week-long stay; maybe that was true.  Because the Secret, the Voodoo, the Gospel they relayed made more sense than any sermon & it changed me forever.  Think resurrection.

We leave behind the beanies and their nurses, the middle-aged women and their rage.  But David and I know that they’re the lucky ones, because God likes to hang out in mangers and inpatient facilities.

The hardest months of my life met me the moment I walked through my front door sober for the first time, but now I knew I wasn’t alone.  I wasn’t even broken.  I was alive, and in rehab we learn we’re allowed to be a human.  We don’t hide our mistakes, obsessions, abuses, psychosis, or self-harm behind the big glass doors because we can see the scars on everyone else.

And the haphazardly applied eyeliner—that’s a signature rehab move.

The secret is that you’re never alone, and you’re not broken (even though you ache), and of course you can hold the baby, and don’t drink that much coffee, and American rehabs singlehandedly keep Sleepy Time Tea in production.

The secret is in remembering what Love looks and sounds and feels and tastes like.

Booga pees his pants on the way home, after they rip open the gifts.  We listen to Lorde this time, instead of Taylor Swift’s 1989 which she had released earlier on very day of my discharge, 10/27/14.  When I listened to that album driving along Parker’s Mainstreet it was like coming alive all over again.

He’s still holding my hand.  And he is sober now, too.  The Gospel is hard to resist when it looks this good, I guess.

Every new thing I did sober hurt so good.  Like flossing too hard.  Goodhardgood.  Every new thing I do to this day feels so Goodhardgood.  It’s the voodoo that teaches us how to do the scary things even though there’re lots of sharks and fire and blowout diapers.

In the New Story we’re the Love Hulks who can have adult conversations without manipulating, and discipline a child without shame.

The Santa wasn’t real, or even great.  But he was everything we needed.  I don’t know if God is real, in the sense that Americans like to imagine.  And “great” isn’t the first word that comes to mind when I look back over the last twenty-nine years, or since election day.

But I’ll be damned if God as Love isn’t everything we need.  Thank you Parker Valley Hope, for helping us remember.

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On Louis C.K. (and the art of dentistry)

Oh this hurts, doesn’t it?

Have you seen the Sarah Silverman clip?  The one where her brain and heart explode on the screen in front of us because she loves her friend Louis, but also…how?  Because he masturbated in front of all those females, and Sarah’s a stalwart in the women’s rights arena.

…How?

Do we humans have the capacity to hold the Good and the Hard in another?  No, I’ll rephrase that because we can’t offer to another what we ourselves have refused to receive.

Are you able to hold your own glory and horror?

It feels good believing that maybe God sanctioned off a few people to the side after She molded our clay on the sixth day.  That would make this world, and God, easier to digest—we wouldn’t need a Tums after consuming Christ’s reckless Love.

Remember how when you hug your own Hard too tightly it becomes Good?

Remember the tattoos.  I can see Louis, Harvey, and Spacey there, too.

Remember that you’re an abuser, too.  Because maybe you grabbed your son’s arm too tightly, and there was that one time you did that one thing mostly by accident.  Remember how we’re all wounded, not wicked?  These men made really destructive, shalom-shattering choices.  PERIOD, full stop.

I think they also forgot that God called them Good in the Garden.  I think toxic male masculinity models and shame-based purity culture fueled by empty religion really fucked us up.  Life, and forgetting, and lies have created a sticky soul plaque.  We can’t see the pearly parts because we’ve eaten too much sugar, porn, TV, video games, and pretend versions of God.

This right here, this is the dentist visit of the century for us humans.

Do you feel the grating and scratching away?  Are you sensing a little more stress and anxiety because you’re stuck in a chair (or a weeping planet) and the buzz of our collective cries just hurts too much?

Can you even believe we’re here?  You knew we had an issue, you just didn’t know how to solve it.

Here’s what happens next.

Let those layers go.  Yes, the scraping hurts.  Maybe the promise that the dentist isn’t a dick will help you?  I promise.  Let all those versions of God get sucked into that clear plastic tube that’s shoved toward the back of your mouth.

While we’re here we may as well offer up anything else that is starting to feel too tight.  The self-harm, political & tribal identities, and secrets can go now, right?  Do you have straight-to-jail-and-hell-secrets, too?  A few years ago I let those layers go and now you can see my pearly parts again.

Love held me close even with my oozing wounds—so much pus and blood and shame.  God’s outrageous grace made no sense, and in that embrace that I learned how to hug myself.  If God loves me no matter what, then I can love me no matter what.

Oh this hurts, doesn’t it?

At some point our brightness comes back.  And it gets tricky here, because we want everyone to know about the dental/soul work going on the back room.  We see the grime in others and for a moment, or a year, we focus on their yuck instead of keeping our own soul clean.

Their yuck is theirs.  Your yuck is yours.

Keep going back for your check-ups.  I try to get in daily because it’s grungy out there.  Meditate, pray, serve, drink water and eat salad, hug a kid or a dog, write down the truth.  Did you know that fear can take root in the mammalian brain in two seconds.  Something threatens us, we panic, and we’re gone—spinning in fear land.

Did you know it can take up to fifteen seconds for a positive thought to settle in?  We have evolved to choose fear over truth and joy.  Whenever I feel the heaviness, sense the plaque building up, or can start to hear the cries I go to the empty white pages in front of me and record everything I know is Truth.  It’s like brushing my teeth, but with a fine-tip fountain pen.

God’s not a dick.

God is Good, and Hard.  And Good.

I can’t fuck it up and neither can anyone else.

We’re all gonna make it.

I am capable and effective.

I am Good.

And on and on and on.

Reading words written by others who feel the heavy weight and can smell their own breath helps, too.  The psalms are just David shocked by his odor while hating on others for their own stench. #Humans.  Isn’t it nice to know that scripture was written by people who feel the same way we do?  Anne Lamott and the Twelve Steps work, too.

Do we have the ability as a nation to hold the glory and horror of humanity side-by-side?  I think we’re getting there.  In my own experience rage always comes before the sadness.  And then sadness reluctantly leaves a breadcrumb trail for glory.  First the pain, then the waiting, then the rising, as Glennon says.

If Sarah and the rest of us keep showing up for this horror then we win.  Don’t look away, turn off the TV and close the computer; consider leaving your phone in another room.  Inhale and exhale, lots of times.  This dentist trip needs to happen without the Lidocaine, numbing only keeps the pain pushed away.

We have to hold it, remember?  We need to stay awake, because somewhere in the midst of the cries and drilling, the hurricanes and oil spills, you hear a still small voice.

That’s Love.

Please listen.

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Chapter 21: On Faith

I’m driving up to Boulder with David.  “Don’t Take The Money” blasts out of our open car windows while the warm August air swirls around inside.  The hair I decided to grow out flaps into my face and mouth, for so long I kept it short.

What if the cancer comes back and I lose it all—again?

As far as we know, the cancer has come back.  That’s why we’re headed up to Boulder for a biopsy of the largest and most worrisome lymph node that flared up in a recent, routine PET scan.

Report reads: “suspicious of malignancy.”

Where’s my eagle now?  I need you, Mama.

Two weeks before this drive along the foothills, on the day John McCain delivered his “thumbs down” on the Senate floor (I cried), a nice radiology tech escorted me back to the dark room after injecting me with the same dye that Rae survived.

If one blasts Alt-rock while wearing make-up & and a good blow out does that mean cancer won’t want her?  The hope is that the younger and more vibrant I appear, the less likely those greedy, rogue cells are to want my life.

Fuck this shit.

I’m twenty-nine!  I have four young children!  I finally woke up, sobered up, showed up, and now my Mama Eagle goes AWOL?  No.  I reject that.  I’m not hitting those rocks.  You hear that, God?  Cancer isn’t a part of this story anymore!

I know I campaigned on the platform of You not being a dick, but I feel duped.

My small doctor sticks a very long needle into my pelvis and sends me home to the wonderful monsters, the needy garden, the glory and horror of a life in limbo.  Every night I cry.  I text friends hourly asking for prayers and help and funny GIFs.

A guarantee would be great.  I need to know that my lungs and pelvis are clear before I can belly laugh again.  Cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, and beans drip off their trellises; I can’t even harvest anymore.  My life on my terms or no life at all!

My faith is fizzling.  I’m stuck.  The swoop is gonna come too late.

***

I signed a contract.

I, Claire, will only eat organic food, take anti-inflamatory supplements, and live a holistic, healthy lifestyle in exchange for never getting cancer again.

I’ve made similar ones, before.

I, Claire, agree to do dishes, keep the house pretty, and stay limber so that my husband never leaves.

I, Claire, agree to feed my children on the most healthy (read: expensive & time-consuming) meals so that they don’t develop cancer, too.  And so they don’t get fat; life as the fat kid nearly ruined their mother.

David and the kids didn’t have to sign it them.  No, these belong to me.

The thing is, even the cleanest eaters get sick.  And I know amazing women who have wandering husbands.  Does food play a part?  Yes, which is where our Next Loving Step  comes in handy.  Don’t you wish sometimes that you were God?

Instead of making peace with the free fall and flight we keep pens handy just in case an agreement surfaces that calms our crazy.

We believe more exercise, better schools, more sex, bigger budgets, and stronger borders will help us.  Don’t those just reinforce our control?  We sign the dotted lines, vote along party lines, wait in check-out lines for the clothing and hand soap that will make us a little less OCD.

Where’s the faith in that?  I think faith is simply choosing to believe that God’s not a dick, and embracing the thought that no matter what, our Mama will swoop.  Faith might also mean believing that even if shit hits the fan, we’ve got a Mama in a hazmat suit who specializes in biohazardous materials.

Don’t worry, She says while scraping poo off our walls.  I’m here now.  She hands me disinfectant spray.  Yeah, but where were You before it all got so shitty?

The contracts we keep stored in our purses and basement boxes keep us enslaved, and afraid.  What if I violate the terms and agreements and buy non-organic?  Or don’t do the dishes?  Or vote _______?  (You fill in that blank.)

But believing God is everything God says S/He is?  That’s brave and it gives me chills. That means we have to believe God is Good & Hard—at the same time.

My contract with my own cancer keeps me enslaved to expensive foods, supplements, and anti-inflammatories galore.  Do they work?  Yes, probably.  I’m just not sure that the anxiety of skipping Chlorella for a week or two should make me pick at my heel.  Stress is proven to feed cancer cells.  Non-organic eggplants are not—yet.

So I’ll take my chances with the eggplant and celery and break my contract with the holistic health system one veggie at a time.  Don’t tell me eggplant is a fruit, I know that.

I trust in God’s Goodhardgoodness and my own NLS.  I believe that neither I nor anyone else can fuck it up.  For all the free falls I’ve taken, not one has ended in anything other than glorious flight.  Always.

***

There’s still a week left before our drive back up to Boulder for the pathology report.  David and I fall asleep whispering Scripture to each other with tears crusted to our faces.  Every fear we thought we defeated the last time around is surfacing.

It feels like watching an alligator lunge out of the shallow pond that looked so still and calm before the zebra bent down to drink.

12 days until the pathology report.

10 more days.

8 days.

6 days left.  The phone rings around 3:40pm, the week before school starts.  I really wanted to start the school year knowing…

Hello?

“Hi, Claire?”

“Yes!  Hi!”  TELL ME RIGHT NOW WHY YOU ARE CALLING.

“Pathology just came back clear.  We didn’t see any cancer in that node.”  THANK YOU.

“Wow.  That’s awesome.  Thanks for calling and letting me know.”

Inhale.

Exhale.

Thanks, Mama.

We cancelled the appointment, scheduled another FU scan for six months out to keep an eye on that pelvic motherfucker, and hung up.

Do you want to know something?  Even if the cancer was back David and I believe it would’ve been Good, and Hard, and Good.  They’re the same thing.

Cancer doesn’t obey contracts.

Neither do kids.

Or marriages.

Or the stock market.

What choice do we have then besides hugging chemo and debt so tightly that they pass right through us?

We must believe that when God reaches out to save, S/He doesn’t see the legal documents we’ve kept in storage.

God just sees the humus that needs some help.

Our lives prove this, and if you look deeply and honestly enough into your own story I bet you’ll be able to say the same thing.  Someday, if not today.  Do not lose hope.

You are loved beyond all reason and measure by a God who, despite popular opinion, is not a dick.

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