Step 1: I Suck At Life


A photo by Tim Marshall.

I remember wanting to stop more than I wanted to take the pills, but will power wasn’t enough because my biology is different.  I remember keeping a strict schedule with the kids so that every four hours, when my skin started itching and I wanted to Houdini out of myself, I had peace and quiet to help ease me into that narcotic hug.

8am:  TV time.  Take 20mg of oxy and let it trickle into the blood that bedtime kept clean.  Strawberry Shortcake had the same effect on the kids.  We zoned out together, as a family.

Noon:  Rush them through lunch, hurry them into their beds, plop onto the big gray sofa, and take another 20mg.  The constant unyielding drive to make my life feel better made it impossible for anyone to exhale around me.  God forbid one of them resist sleep.  How dare you rob my high from me.

4pm:  Quiet time, which I still enact today, but now it’s so can read or prep dinner instead of melting into the sofa with narcotics, and Dr. Phil.  Dr. Phil is it’s own kind of opiate.

8pm:  Bed time.  I would purposefully go longer than the prescribed four hours sometimes, stepping right up to the edge of sanity, so that when I took the 20mg I felt that womb-y rush a little more like a wave and a little less like a ripple.

I know they advise against mixing narcotics with Vodka, but they probably don’t know how great it feels.  Sometimes I drank.  Often I drank.

Toward the end I was usually a day or five behind the prescription refill, but I had amassed a stash from all the surgeries and medical procedures.  Stealing Ambien from David worked in a pinch.

Toward the end I never felt the waves because I had sunk completely under, like when you dive under the white water and settle into the calm against the sandy ocean floor. I hadn’t breathed in years, since the bone marrow transplant.

Toward the end David left work early and often because I regularly nodded off or needed help with withdrawal symptoms.  How did he manage promotions and raises with a sunken wife?  Thank you, Lord.  Thank you, David.

My life was unmanageable, I couldn’t keep going—that’s all I knew.

I also knew that normal people didn’t need three laxatives a day to keep their bowels moving.  And maybe it wasn’t normal to have a 3-year-old who scratched her body, or a social & spiritual life dissolve away.

Once upon a time I decorated a home for Christmas without Adderall, I know that happened.  What about all the Elton John I used to play as I bopped around the house?  What happened to sex with my husband?

Ohhh, right, oxy replaced all of that.  No need for best friends and morning walks when pharmaceuticals rested in the little porcelain box on the side table next to the gray sofa.

My first morning in rehab, after a night in the Shake Shack (where one goes to shake from withdrawal), I woke up skipping because I could see the surface of the water for the first time in two years.  The filtered, green-blue light whipped my insides into a life-y froth.  I heard voices and music again.  Muffled, but audible.

Then Olive, the tall, southern, and slightly-Buddhist chaplain handed out a worksheet at my first inpatient session.  Only seven weeks prior they ripped my baby boy out of me in an emergency c-section, he flipped breach at the last minute, after my water broke at 10cm dilated—I labored right up to the end.


He knew I needed help, too.  And so he ruined what would have been a perfect delivery.  We could’ve left the hospital before his withdrawal symptoms showed up, before they called social services.

In the big room full of bare faces and even barer souls I sat on a pillow on the floor to help with the pain from my half-natural, half c-section delivery.  Oxy would help take away the pain from the pink incision and chemo-fried nerves, but oxy would also drag me back down into the cold, lonely, quiet abyss.

Olive walked through the first of twelve steps: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol/oxy/adderall/exercise/control/food/love/sex/power/fear/nicotine/marijuana/everything—that our lives had become unmanageable.

I will never feel more safe or more at home than in room full of addicts, a room full of people unafraid to admit defeat, humanity, and fear.  Turns out, nodding off with your children playing near-by and putting your son in the NICU qualifies as an unmanageable existence.  Which was such a relief.  I don’t have to hold it all up anymore.

Wait, nobody’s really holding it all up, are they?  So, we all need help?

Oh I could get used to this.  I inhaled and exhaled every day in rehab.  I drank way too much sleepy time tea because Ambien is a crutch, they told me.  They encouraged meditation or reading instead, which was hilarious.

“I hear you, but there is a very angry lady in the Shake Shack who is in fact shaking, and smells like kimchi, and maybe mentioned punching anyone who turned on the light again.  And if I get punched with a healing abdominal wound I’m sure I would need oxy but this is rehab, you see the dilemma don’t you?  So please give me some Ambien.”

“Sweetie, I can give you chocolate and a hug.”  The night nurse smiled kindly.

“God-damn it.”  Rehab is where I learned to curse.  People in recovery swear because we can’t drink and we don’t give a rip what anyone thinks of us.

“Fine, I’ll take the chocolate.  And the hug.”


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Step 2: I’m Cold


There was a moment, the day before they harvested my eggs five years ago, when I decided God wasn’t going to help this time.  The choice was clear as those IV fluids: either God is Good and it was all a dream; I don’t really need a bone marrow transplant; I won’t be infertile; I won’t lose my eyelashes, again.

Or, God, whatever God is, is a dick.  And my infant won’t recognize her bald and bloated mama.

God chose the later— so did I.  Nobody knew about my decision, I didn’t know about my decision.  What I did know on that harvesting table, numb from the waste down, was that God wasn’t going to get one more tear.  If God said yes to cancer again, then God couldn’t be trusted.

In pain doctors I trust.  I pledge allegiance to my prescriptions.  
God’s clearly a little confused about how to keep a human happy, so I’ll take it from here.  
No, we need to increase my doses because I still feel like a human.

Though David asked repeatedly if I felt ready for church again, I didn’t feel welcome in the home a God who claims to be Love incarnate, not with three IV lines installed in my heart and hanging out of my chest.  Not with the poisonous burning cement radiating from inside my femurs and pelvis, and urine that smells like a mummified rat soaking in its own urine.  This isn’t Love.  This is hell.

Who would choose God over opiates?

When we step away from the protective, warm wing of the Mama Hen, cold, bitterness, and fear start to pursue.  Addicts love hiding, I found a cozy hiding spot in the corner of the big gray sofa.  The Crate & Barrel blankets could keep my body warm enough, but an almost-corpse lay inside, hypothermia setting in.

Step 2: We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

This was the easiest step for me.

All through my adolescence I watched my Higher Power restore and redeem my sister’s life, cancer, and death.  I had living and dying proof that God was real, that Love was real.  The weight of God’s glory pressed down on our dysfunctional family.  Every time I tried to escape God’s loving, kind Goodness my sister would go and get healed, or something like that.

But on that table, as those kind, punk-ass doctors took the last of my fertility, everything changed, it had to.  My sister’s faith & story couldn’t carry me anymore, I needed one of my own.

At rock bottom, bewildered and alone in the NICU, I finally understood what my best attempts to control my own life got me: a drugged, shaky newborn.  A drugged, shaky Claire.  His sweet warm baby body was all I needed to warm up the frozen insides that the Crate & Barrel blankets never could.

Last weekend I sat in a jacuzzi with David under yellowing aspens high up in the Rockies.  Their quaking and quivering mirrored the soul and body shaking I used to endure.  “It looks like an invisible toddler is shaking the branch back and forth,” I commented. The wind rattled the leaves dramatically, as if someone had given the wild thing a latte.

Then they calmed, and quickly ceased moving completely.  The invisible mother must have called the invisible, caffeinated toddler in for bedtime.  Peace at last for those crisping blades.

Little inside Claire tired from all the rustling and rattling around.  I can’t do this alone.

Finally, there on the pillow on the floor in rehab, the convulsing stopped.  Yes, Suboxone helped, but I think it was more like God calling away the wild addictions and toddler fears that shook me for too long.

Come inside now, leave the poor thing alone.

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Step 3: Let’s Dance


The Third Step: We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

Hi God,

They want me to turn my life over to You, as I understand You.  The thing is, the more I live, and the more I learn about You, the less I know.

For a long time You were a wealthy, white, straight, Republican.  Also a man.  Maybe a Libertarian.

But then rock bottom found my hiding spot, so did You.  And as You flashed across my face, shrouded in that holy, damp, life-y fog I saw that You wore none of the identities I assigned to You for all those years.

Light, light was all I saw.  Pinking and pulsing, dancing, fading in and out of bright yellows and sherbet orange.  In that Light only Love exists:  Truth-Love, Justice-Love, Hard-Love, Good-Love.

Once, toward the end of Ellen’s life I dreamt of You, a Lion, circling the canvas tent my family and I huddled in like penguins keeping out the cold.  All the jungle noises frightened us, but none more than Your scary-ass roar.

He’s coming for us.  We’re done.  Aslan isn’t a Good Lion after all—Aslan is actually Scar.

Why do You allow (or cause) illness and pain?  Those Syrian babies still drowning and freezing and starving still ruins me.  The sober part of my sobriety feels like more than I signed up for: a newborn brought home before realizing you would not sleep or shower for the next five years.  And since I’m an honest woman, I wish the Bible—Your love letter to humanity—was a tad bit more consistent, easy, and up-to-date.

The roaring, strangely, never crept closer.  After hours of listening to Your growly intimidations I peeked out.  You weren’t stalking my family, my dying sister, or me.  You were protecting, keeping all the hyenas and all the jungle away.

They want me to turn my Life over to You as I understand You, and now that I see just how purely You love EVERYONE, I think I can do that.  Now that I know for sure there is no condemnation in Christ (not even for the mom who NICU-ed her son and whacked her kids, and ate too much or too little, and manipulated like a sociopath) I can release the control I thought I had.

You’re not keeping track, and so I can drop the puppets, I can toss the tallies out the window of the Honda Pilot while I dance in the car on the way to therapy.

That’s a God I can understand:  A fierce protector of the holy clay You called Good.  I’d rather worship a ball of Love energy than a straight, conservative, white, Western male, anyway.  I’m okay with scary and hard, because You always end up swooping in the end.

Hard becomes Good after You roar away all the death.  When we peek out through the worn canvas structures we built and see the safety and freedom and Love You’ve provided, that’s when we start to say Thank You instead of how dare you?

Then we dance.  The jungle howling never stops, but neither does the dancing.

I can get behind a God who dances.  Here: take my life, take my tent and my excel spreadsheets.  I want to twirl in the pink Light.

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