Guest Post: My Wife Josie is 3 Years Sober Today

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Josie and her husband, Dan, on a couple occasions and didn’t think it was possible to like them more. Then I read this guest-post and realized I was wrong. Congratulations to Josie on her 3 years of recovery, and thank you to Dan for supporting her and sharing such a sweet tribute.

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For almost 3 years you’ve gotten to know Josie by reading her blog. The blogging relationships she has developed have been of great assistance to her and her life. But it’s about time that you get to know the Josie I know. It’s about time that you hear stories from another point of view. It’s about time you see my wife Josie through my eyes and my heart…

In the winter of 1994, while in college I tagged along to a Residence Life staff dinner at my college. At that time my then girlfriend was part of this group as were many friends that I came to know. When the event was over a few people stayed behind to clean up. This was spearheaded by the Residence Life Coordinator, Josie. The clean-up took place in her apartment attached to one of the residence halls. A discussion broke out about the…

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The death of Audrey Conn

Audrey Conn died just before Christmas. According to this article on The Fix, she swallowed pills and vodka and then hung herself. It took awhile for the news to break. The founder of Moderation Management was living in relative obscurity at the time of her death.

In 1996, I knew her as author Audrey Kishline. The picture on the back of her book Moderate Drinking made her seem more school marm than alcoholic. In fact, she was clear her approach was not for alcoholics. Moderation Management was aimed at helping problem drinkers return to moderate drinking. If only the lines in real life were that clear.

Moderation Management guidelines are pretty clear about moderate drinking. For women, this means no more than 3 drinks a day, but here’s the real kicker: no more than 9 drinks in a week. This must be some kind of joke, I thought, when I first pulled Audrey’s book off the shelf at Barnes and Noble in 1996. I was 22 and it was the only book I could find that wasn’t about quitting alcohol, although I knew I needed some kind of help.

I’m in awe of people in their twenties who quit drinking. Those were carefree days for me, and I was in denial about where my drinking was headed. By day, I worked as a mental health worker with schizophrenic adults. I lived with my then-boyfriend (now-husband) and we reserved most drinking for the weekends. A close friend held fabulous cocktails parties so we’d get all dressed up and head into the city. I’d creep outside my comfort zone of beer and guzzle liquor and later spew it back up along the walkway of our apartment building. It was a real classy affair. The next morning I might recline the driver’s seat of my white Festiva so I could curl into a fetal position in the grocery store parking lot. I was alternately working up the nerve to get the shopping over with and wishing I was dead because I felt like I might be already. That was how I drank. Can you believe I stopped?

But I didn’t stop then, no. I bought Audrey’s book and took it home and poured over it. I started the 30 day abstinence period during the month of October. I’d forgotten all about Oktoberfest. I went to one outdoor celebration anyway and white knuckled through while a drinking buddy snorted “What, do you think you’re some kind of alcoholic?” Of course not, I said. That was such an ugly, hopeless word. When November rolled around, I was relieved, but I wouldn’t say it was all that hard to abstain for a month. Thirty days is a light sentence.

By all accounts, Moderate Drinking should have worked on me. I was in my early 20s and not yet a daily drinker. I had a steady job, a nice place to live, a boyfriend, and no real personal or health consequences from drinking. I binge-drank on weekends, but even then puking and hangovers were saved for really special occasions. I continued to drink for the next 15 years, never once sticking to 9 drinks a week.

I read somewhere recently that moderate drinkers don’t call it moderate drinking. Shocking, I know, but they don’t feel the need to count drinks and plan their whole night around how much they drink or don’t drink. The first sign that you’re not a moderate drinker might be using the phrase moderate drinker.

Fifteen years of progressively heavier drinking got me back to the bookstore for another copy of the book that helped me so much the first time around. It was not there. The shelves were lined with books on how to quit. What the hell? I googled and found a book from Moderation Management, but with a different title and new author. Eleven years after it happened, I quietly read about Audrey Kishline’s deadly drunk driving accident. I think that’s the moment it fell into place for me. I’ve always described my decision to quit drinking as a mysterious, quiet thunderbolt from beyond. But now I think this was it. Thank you, Audrey.

I actually wrote to her in October. I said how much her book helped me over the years. I told her because of her book and my inability to actually drink moderately, I’d quit drinking and found something that felt like peace. I told her I would love to interview her, that I was curious how she was doing and thought other people might be too. I hadn’t worked out where the interview would run, and figured I probably wouldn’t hear back from her and didn’t for awhile.

Her response was short and sweet. She thanked me for writing and said she was glad I found the recovery approach that worked for me. She said she was totally abstinent and planning on staying that way. I remember she put a smiley face after that sentence. She said she was too busy for interviews because she was writing again. I was half-disappointed and half-relieved. It felt like a happy ending. I wrote back and told her I was glad to hear she was writing again and wished her well.

Suicide is black hole territory. I can’t help but wonder if I could have reached out differently and helped her in some way, however small. Imagine how her mother must feel. Her children! I feel sad for the woman who lost her daughter and ex-husband in the drunk driving accident and later became friends with Audrey. They wrote a book together, I imagine to tell about the devastating effects of drunk driving and healing powers of love and hope.

For what it’s worth, it all helped me. I can’t say for sure I would have stopped drinking if not for Audrey’s first book and her accident. Her drunk driving accident was my wakeup call. When I read about it in 2011, I thought that could happen to me. I didn’t know then that not drinking would turn out to be easier than counting drinks and trying hard to be something I was not. Everyone involved in her story cleared a path and lit the way.

100 years

Before the big party, my grandmother asks me to do her makeup. Her hands are too shaky, she explains, as she hands me a tube of foundation that looks too tan. I squeeze a tiny amount onto my fingertip and feather and blend in the worn light of her bathroom. She asks for rouge – actually calling it that – and hands me a tube of cheap lipstick. Let me go get my makeup bag, I say. Ok, she says.

My fingers carefully navigate the suddenly unfamiliar terrain of her face. When did her skin get so soft, so thin? When is the last time I’ve touched anyone’s face besides my own and my little girl’s? My grandmother closes her eyes while I work with brushes and pencils and the foamy tip of an eyeshadow wand. I alternate between worrying she’ll look garish and no different at all. When I’m done, she turns to the mirror and says to herself You are old but she smiles and seems pleased.

Five of us pile into my dad’s car and head into the city for this big party. It’s a 100 year celebration for a social club my grandmother joined shortly after she emigrated to this country in the Fifties. I spent a half dozen of the longest evenings of my life in this hall when my brother and I were kids. We were surrounded by old people who smiled a lot and spoke a language we couldn’t understand. They served plates of steaming gray sausages and beef rolls that resembled dog turds but fortunately did not taste like them (I assume).

This might be a good place to back up and explain there’s a generation missing. My dad is not my grandmother’s son. He is her ex son-in-law. My mother died from cancer when I was just over a year old. She was my grandmother’s only daughter. My grandmother never got over that one, I can tell you. My dad remarried eventually and my brother and I grew up with a good woman who I have always known as Mom. My dad, good people that he is, still helps my grandmother with things like taxes and escorting her to 100 year celebrations.

When we get to the hall for this shindig, the foyer is in chaos. I have to root through my purse to find our tickets. We give up our coats to women in folk costumes who usher us to a table and hold out tiny glasses of something. It’s Vityra, a honey liqueur. Oh, no thank you, I say. Here, a woman says and extends the glass again. I don’t drink, I say. Everyone’s wearing tight smiles to mask the sudden awkwardness and confusion. Another woman steps in and says Just a tiny sip like I’ve hit 41 and never tried alcohol. I start to feel indignant, a little hysterical even. She says to me, It will help for the next room. You are sadly mistaken I want to say, but I refuse again and this time it sticks and the others take their shot and toast. Ten seconds feels like ten rounds. I feel oddly fortified to face the next room.

The doors swing open and the room sucks us in. An unsmiling photographer snaps our photograph, only I don’t realize until he tells us we can go. If I ever see the picture, I’m certain I’ll be staring open mouthed at the ceiling or wall. The hall is magnificent. I haven’t been here in over 20 years and it looks better than I remember or imagined. The afternoon sun filters through golden curtains and everyone looks airbrushed and perfect.

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I drink Cokes with the girls. Normally I would drink Diet, but today I’m letting my hair down. I take pictures of the hall. My grandmother finds old friends to talk to, so my dad and girls and I head up three flights of stairs to a museum that needs its own museum. I snap about 200 pictures, all of which I’m going to share with you right now.

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My kids were the first to fade. Kids these days have no stamina for folk carvings and dolls that probably come to life and dance quaintly. Here’s the moment they realize my 88 year-old grandmother is halfway up the first landing.

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I feel like we’d been caught going out for ice cream without her. It’s too many stairs, I say. It’s really cold up there, my oldest points out helpfully. There’s old dolls, my youngest says unhelpfully. My dad’s no help because he’s still upstairs talking to the curator, but my grandmother doesn’t seem interested in the museum anyway. I help her back down and an older gentleman passes us and she whispers to me He wanted to marry your mother.

She says this again later about another man that stops by our table. He introduces himself to me as the man responsible for getting my mother and father together. I tell him thank you very much because if not for him, my girls and I wouldn’t be here. When he leaves my grandmother tells me he too wanted to marry my mother but he was too short for her.

100 year celebrations are maybe only somewhat surprisingly filled with speeches. A congressman, an ambassador, and a former hall president give speeches. Only one is in english. It sounds like the start of a joke, and the punchline is quaint folk dancing. The jarring accordion starts while we’re in the restroom. It looks like it did 20 years ago. I know it’s bad form to post pictures of restrooms on blogs, but I already worked dog turds into this post and hope you’ll understand.

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If not for the overpowering funk of air freshener, I might have pulled up a chair to take it all in. My grandmother swears it was renovated recently. When we get older, do all the decades bleed together?

After all the speeches and folk dancing, my grandmother wants to walk up to the buffet line and serve herself. They’re calling tables by number, we explain. I see several white-haired renegades totter over with their chinette plates. When you get to a certain age, maybe you realize rules are for rubes. Maybe you hit enough buffets that ran out early.

The salad is the best I’ve ever had. The cake has almond paste and layers and looks like it took someone a long time to make. The kids don’t eat much. I sneak them bland things I brought from home and let them fill up on marble cake with white frosting that someone mercifully put out by the coffee. My grandmother eats everything on her plate and wraps fried dough pastries in a napkin and puts them in her sequined purse to take home. Just when I think the night can’t get any better, a man about my age with spiky hair sets up on stage and plays electric guitar and sings Lithuanian rock songs.

My youngest one wants to dance. This kid, she won’t take no for an answer about anything, so I don’t try too hard. We’re one of two “couples” “dancing”. She likes me to twirl her around so that you or I would vomit. Kids just get crazier when you spin them that fast. She’s like a tiny top of madness and it doesn’t matter that I can’t barely dance the hokey pokey because I’m really enjoying myself. It’s a good thing I don’t drink because I’d never be able to handle these spins, I think.

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Soon the dance floor is cramped. This crowd knows just what to do and forms a giant circle. People wearing black hats are allowed to dance inside it. I don’t understand the rules, but we all abide. After the dance breaks up, my grandmother greets an old friend with a hug.

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We don’t stay too much longer. I’m the first one ready to leave. My grandmother is the last. She says my dad doesn’t want to leave. She says he and my mother used to go dancing all the time before they had kids. Eventually we get our coats and head out into the cold dark night in a huddle to keep warm.

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