What Might Have Been

I wake up by slow inches. My head pounds with a dull sickening weight. A relentless thirst makes it hard to swallow, impossible to sleep. My stomach roils and I pitch myself from the bed and to the toilet. I didn’t eat much yesterday, so I dry heave into the cool and clean porcelain bowl, once, twice, a third time. I rinse my mouth with water from the tap, then, exhausted, lie on the tile floor. Coolness kisses my cheek as I drift away. I like to be away. Away, all memory of last night is vast and blank. Away, I have nothing to regret, no secrets to hide. Away, I don’t wonder where I got the new bruise blooming on my inner thigh. 

“MOM!” I hear my older son yell. He’s outside the bedroom door, but it’s still too loud for this early in the morning. “MOM! Todd will not get up for school. I’m going to miss the bus if I don’t leave now.”

“Okay, honey,” my voice is rusty as I try to project it through the bedroom door. “I’m having a quick shower.” I stagger upright and turn on the water again. Will he know it’s just the sink and not the shower? Probably not. “Have a good day. I love you!”

“Love you,” he says. I know he will have his homework in his backpack and his lunch money in the pocket of his jeans. Mark is a good boy. He’s only ten, he shouldn’t be responsible for his little brother, who would sleep until afternoon if I let him. 

I lift the tank lid of the toilet bowl and pull out a fifth of vodka. Good. Half full. I take a long drink then another. Just enough to stop my hands shaking. Just enough to get everything into alignment. Eventually, I stash the vodka and brush my teeth. I drag a comb through my snarled hair, pull on sweat pants. They don’t match the t-shirt I slept in but I don’t change. I don’t care if the secretary in the main office judges me when I sign Todd in late again. I don’t care if she raises her eyebrows because I’m using the same thin excuse as yesterday. 

I think about the vodka still in the bottle in the bathroom. If I drank it, I’d care even less. But I don’t. Not yet. I need to get Todd to school and I am careful not to drink too much before I drive. I am a good mom. I love my kids. I’d never hurt them. 

I thrust my feet into sneakers. They’re bright pink and hurt my eyes. So don’t look down, I tell myself. Maybe today I won’t drink. Maybe today I’ll call my sponsor. Go to a meeting. I know I will be welcomed back without judgement. But then I think about how I have already had a drink today. My sponsor will know. She doesn’t take any shit off me. I might need a new sponsor. That’s fine. I can stop drinking tomorrow.

This piece of fiction came from the prompt “What Might Have Been.” There was a time in my 20s I felt sure I would become an alcoholic if I didn’t change my life. The first change led to other positive changes and a huge discovery–I’d been drinking to self-medicate in an effort to calm fear, anxiety and panic. I still don’t know how my subconscious knew I needed to make those changes, I’m just happy I listened.

Rose Colored Glasses

Heather Von St. James and I have both been accused of wearing rose-colored glasses. We are both optimists; others might call us fools. I think being fools might have saved our lives.

Ten years ago, I got an unexpected and distressing diagnosis: Barrett’s Esophagus, a pre-cancer condition caused by stomach acid eating away the lining of the esophagus. It is irreversible. Once you’ve got it, you can’t get rid of it. You can only slow the process of the cancer by diet and medication. I saw my doctor yearly for checks how the cells were behaving. Barrett’s is not an automatic death sentence, but I’d already had a friend die of cancer that originated in her esophagus, and I was scared. I didn’t dwell on it, though. I put on my rose-colored glasses, cleaned up my diet, and took my meds.

I usually only let myself dwell on the condition just before and after my yearly check up. If I told anyone about it, I got all twisted up in the telling, because there were other complications that made things worse, so I pretty much kept quiet about it, and kept those rose-colored glasses on. Three years in, I came out of the operating room and my doctor said “It’s gone.” I wasn’t sure I heard him right because I’m put under general anesthesia for the procedure, and when I come out of it, I’m stoned and miss a lot of information. My husband, Al, is always with me, so I looked at him. He was smiling.

“Gone? But I thought…”

“I know,” the doctor said “but it’s gone.”

Wave after wave of relief washed me clean of fear. This was a miracle. But it is nothing compared to the miracle Heather has experienced. Heather had just given birth to a baby girl, Lily, when she was diagnosed with mesothelioma, which is the cancer caused by asbestoes. Heather was really young to have this type of cancer, but her dad worked construction and she liked to wear his work coat, which was covered with the dust from his job. People with mesothelioma don’t usually live very long. Heather was given 15 months. But she refused to give up hope. She had a lung removed and to lighten the situation, her sister named Heather’s surgery date “Lung Leaving’ Day.” 


The original Lung Leaving’ Day was nine years ago. Every year since then, Heather and her family celebrate her wellness by writing their fears on plates and smashing them into a fire. Because even women who wear rose-colored glasses have to take them off sometimes. We fear a return of the disease. We wonder when our luck will run out. For Heather, smashing that fear into a fire with all of her loved ones around her is the way she keeps hope for a long and healthy life alive. She says “Don’t take a death sentence as a diagnosis.” Pretty rosy words for someone who’s been through cancer hell. But she’s lived to tell the tale, lived to see Lily grow, lived to start a foundation for research into mesothelioma.


And personally, I think Heather turning this thing around to make it about helping others is pretty awesome. It might be why she’s still here. It’s why tomorrow I’m going to write my own fears on a plate and throw them into a fire. And you can bet I’ll be wearing my rose-colored glasses.

The Owen Effect

unnamedBack from blog vacation. Also actual vacation to see new grandson, Owen. Baby is beautiful. Lots of pictures on FB:) I miss him right now so I’m just going to move along and catch up on some other amazing things that have been happening, which I am calling “The Owen Effect” even though I can’t prove his being in the world is what is making my world change so much so fast so fabulous.

First, yes, I still fit into my jeans! I did everything I said I would during vacation as far as eating and exercising goes. Even did I a little yoga. So much walking. Was great. But for me this food control is huge. On vacation. After donating all big jeans and buying smaller sizes. That’s when I usually go up, up, up. Not this time.

Speaking of up, for some reason I just wanted to test out the Space Needle. I’ve been to Seattle before. I have family there. I have never wanted to even LOOK at the Space Needle, because I have a fear of heights. Panic attack level fear. So I just always say no to high places. Or take medication and sometimes emergency vodka.

But the kids, they needed bonding time with baby, so I would see them every day for several hours but I also got in a few tourist type things. I have no idea how the Space Needle thing entered my anxious brain. And why I decided to try it without Xanax. Not even a half. No emergency vodka, no wine, no nothing. Just me and my ticket to terror.

Funny, I didn’t feel terrified. I felt calm about it. A few months ago, I gave a speech, which before that day, public speaking always made me anxious. I did it when I had to, but I did not like it, and I turned down tons of opportunities to give talks. Then one day a friend asked, I couldn’t say no, so I did it. Fine. Fun, even. I figured my decades of teaching had cleared that fear.

But testing the theory, I zoomed to the top of the Space Needle. And had not a moment’s fear. I know! What is happening to me? How am I becoming fearless when I am used to being more riddled with nerves than Woody Allen?

It has to be Owen. No other explanation except maybe I want to not be afraid of stuff anymore. And use less medication. So, I decided to fly home without Xanax. Yeah, I worried a little about turbulence, but kind of shrugged it off. Even as I decided to do this, I was thinking ‘what is with you, girl?’ but I did it. And was fine.

Not saying I’m cured of my multiple phobias. Driving over bridges and on mountains. (I can walk over bridges and on mountains, just not be in cars. Weird.) Helicopters. Yikes! Hot air balloons. Whoa. Being buried alive or, more likely, crammed into an overfull elevator. Those things still sorta make me shake inside.

Still, I have had these fears for 30, 40, and 50 years. I remember the incidents that led to each fear, the repetition that led to anxiety and finally panic and a psychiatrist. Because I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I thought I was having some sort of breakdown or something. And, kind of, I was. Waking up at night terrified of suffocating? In a huge room in a king-sized bed? What is that about?

I really didn’t do talk therapy with the psychiatrist. She gave me meds for one specific phobia (the driving, which let’s face it, agoraphobia would have been next had I not nipped that one). After a year or so she pronounced me “cured” and I was. Kind of. Except in certain high anxiety situations. Snow. Rain. The aforementioned mountains and bridges.

Cognitive therapy is not a way to cure panic. The most popular form of cure is desensitization. You just every day do the thing you fear. While on medication. And then on less medication. Then less. Then none. That’s what I did. But really I can’t fly in an airplane every day or ride up to the top of the Eiffel Tower. (Was there. Could not do it.) I can’t cram myself into a coffin. So, when those things come up, it’s the meds. Except now, not so much.

I read something that said courage is not the opposite of fear. Courage is facing fear. That made me think, huh, wonder what it would feel like to face some of these fuckers? So I did and baby was I ever surprised. I also read somewhere that phobias will follow you into your next life if you don’t handle them in this one. So, just in case …