Death By a Thousand Cuts

Photo by Alfonso Scarpa on Unsplash

My husband parks the car in front of a bistro. The table in the bay window is full and the customers seated there look out briefly at our arrival then resume conversation. There is a bottle of wine in the center of their table. It is a small bistro with seating for less than twenty-five. Behind them is a short bar where I recognize the owner as she mixes someone’s drink: Brut sparkling wine, blood orange juice, a slice of lime and a twig of rosemary. They are serving only brunch today. I’m overcome with what I can only describe as grief and bow my head. My hair falls in front of my face, which contorts as I suppress the urge to cry.

I remember sitting at that bar, not too long ago, with my bag of books and journals. Sitting alone at a bar has never bothered me. I read. I write. I sip wine and feel … accomplished. Mysterious, even. No one around to bother me. No one here really knows me and it gives me a sense of freedom. Silly, but I admit it. I imagine that Hemingway used to do this in Paris at his favorite café in Montparnasse. I’ll jot down notes for my current novel, or ideas for the next novel, or simply listen to the clink of glassware and animated conversations of Sunday patrons. I will feel stylish in my black skinny jeans and Eileen Fisher boots as I drink a glass of Rosé. The bartender will ask if I would like another and I’ll say yes.

Those days are no more. I remind myself of Hemingway’s tragic ending, but this moment of weakness empties me and what fills the void is only a burgeoning maelstrom of despair and rage.

We are in the historical downtown of a quaint port city which is clearly struggling to rise out of a long economic decline. One street over, an entire block of abandoned storefronts is slowly being renovated as new retailers take up habitation. In the residential block, every other home is abandoned with many of the current residents unconcerned about upkeep or clutter. In the Albemarle Sound, dilapidated boat slips host a lone fishing trawler. But, here and there, are signs of the city coming back to life.

It has become our custom, while we wait for our teenage son to complete archery practice, to visit a local brewery. We are over forty minutes from home and this jaunt takes up the entirety of Sunday afternoons. In the past, I would stop at this very bistro while my husband and six-year-old walked ahead to our eventual destination. My husband thought I did this for the food, but, I did it for the drink––or two––which he (probably) did not know about. I ordered brunch to go. I’d bring crepes with eggs Benedict, Monte Cristo sandwiches, or french toast and omelets to the small brewery where they awaited, fittingly called Ghost Harbor Brewing Company. Here, I would get another drink as we ate. Or two.

My husband, who has over a hundred reviews on his Beer Connoisseur profile, animatedly claims every time we go: “This is a great brewery. No, I mean, it is really good!” (Thank goodness I don’t like beer or else today would be unbearable. As if I’m bearing it so well.)

The brewery is accessed through a renovated alley where the nearby restaurants have sectioned their seating with metal partitions, like you find at outdoor concerts, and multiple light strands are strung between the brick buildings. It is probably lovely at night. In the daylight, discarded cigarette butts litter the uneven bricks, of which a number have been overturned to show the brickmakers mark. Probably, the staff tries to sweep the butts up each night, but there are too many cracks and crannies.

Sometimes, there is a buffet set up with free finger food or soups, sandwiches or cupcakes. Their website encourages guests to bring in To Go orders, like I did. My son gets a free soda and popcorn and plays with their vast collection of board games. We always have a great afternoon, which makes today harder than I expected. I want to have a great afternoon. In addition to beer, which I don’t drink, the brewery makes a good mimosa. I’ve watched the bartender pour champagne into a goblet and splash it with orange juice. Just the way I like it.

Right now, grief has overtaken me. I want to cry, wail, punch my fists into the dashboard and I haven’t even gotten out of the car. My husband opens the driver side door, turns to me and asks, “Are you coming?”

“Mommy, are you getting out?” My son has already exited onto the empty street. He presses his palms and face to the glass, smashing his nose flat. His breath fogs the window and he blows his cheeks out, his lips expanding like gills. When he runs around the front of the car to urge my husband out, his fingerprints remain. I am stricken by the consequences of my actions. What have I done to his psyche?

My husband sees my face and quietly asks if I’m okay.

I do not answer right away. If I could, I would say, “No. I am not okay.”

I am angry with myself. Angry at my weakness. Angry at my lack of control and will power. Angry at the very real grief I feel. A crutch has been ripped from me, but it is worse than that. It is as if someone is dying––has died. I am angry that I feel this way. That I did this to myself. If only I had not

I look up at the people in the bistro window. They are laughing, sipping white wine from long-stemmed glasses. There is a woman now sitting at the bar, where I would be. My nerves are extended, stretched toward the bistro. There is an irresistable urge to walk in. Sit down. Order my Rosé. I want to enjoy the afternoon, too. Why can’t I have a mimosa or a glass of wine? Why can’t I? Why? Why?

I know why, of course. One glass will inevitably lead to another and that to another. Maybe not right away. Maybe not today. Maybe not for several weeks and maybe not even for a few months. But … Eventually.

Eventually, I come back around to an all too familiar regret. I think I could do no worse than I did before; that I learned my lesson. But, this is a lie I’ve told myself. I now know there is always something worse. I think I have hit rock bottom, but I take another drink––just one, or maybe just two, I think––and there it is. I’m two bottles down, searching for my next drink and my next and catapulting myself into a dark play in which my body is merely a puppet pulled on mechanical strings. I find a new bottom.

Maybe this sounds familiar to you. Maybe you know of someone or, maybe, you know from experience. I am an alcoholic. My husband knows it. I know it. I accept it. By now, all three of my children know it––even my youngest, though he couldn’t possibly understand, yet. I know it like I know I’ll die someday. It is certain. You don’t know when or how. You prefer not to think about it, to not look too closely at it, though it is always there with you. Your impending death.

But not today, I pray. Please, God. Not today. My husband and my family deserve to have me present in their lives. Fully present. I deserve to be present in my own life. I deserve happiness. Not this roller coaster ride I’ve hopped on as I literally poison myself to death. It is, I’m told, a death by a thousand cuts.

In the car, I gather myself (which is exactly what it feels like–picking up pieces of me) and I tell him I’ll be fine, that I’m going to walk a few blocks to the coffee shop and will meet them at the brewery. He doesn’t look at me with pity, for which I am grateful.

The walk clears my head. It is sunny and the light is warm on my face, but still winter and the wind is cool. I’m glad for my long coat, but I have to concentrate not to trip. I am not wearing shoes for walking and my boots click against the sidewalk, the heels catching in the cracks if I’m not careful.

I’ve quit drinking for the third time in my life, but it is the first time I understand, truly, that I can never drink again. Not. One. Drink. Before, I quit to cut back, recognizing that my wine consumption was out of control. The second time was to take a break, hoping a few months sobriety would heal whatever twisted broken thing inside of me created this havoc. But this time––this time I know I need to find a new way to live. Or, I may die.

There is a point in my binges where my husband says I simply take a nose dive. One minute I’m fine, the next I’m a raving, raging lunatic. I don’t know who that person is or how to tell when I’m about to go over that cliff. Either aspect is frightening beyond words. Alcohol, which I relied on for so long to aid me in social situations, stressful situations, happy situations … It no longer serves me. Instead, I find myself serving it.

I have tried to manage it. My doctor gave me medication to assist with relapse, which does help some as long as I take it. At first, I didn’t believe I was an alcoholic because I don’t go through withdrawals. I don’t drink all day. Surely, I had only developed a bad habit? But when the mere idea of quitting made me panic and actually drink more, when I tried day after day after day to only have one glass out of that bottle, or leave one glass in the bottle, and I failed, I knew I was in trouble. I didn’t know what to do about it and I was afraid to say anything to anyone. It has taken me years to open up to even my family or closest friends. The words lodge in my throat.

By the time I walk the four blocks to the coffee shop, get my drink and walk back, my son and husband are several words into a Scrabble game and I’m calmer. I grab a plate of pretzel and cheese. It is better to stay away from the brunch café. I know my triggers. I open my laptop and try to concentrate on my book. This past year has been my most sober year in over ten years and––surprise?––my most productive.

I can sense you wonder why torture myself by visiting the brewery in the first place? What kind of ass is my husband? I could have saved myself the grief to begin with. I could have stayed home. Part of it is guilt, of course. I don’t want to upset my family’s routine, though my husband will support me in whatever I ask. I insisted I do this today. Despite his prolific beer tasting profile, he is not a drinker. He is happy with a glass of beer once a week. He’s been working on that profile for several years. But, the other part is that I don’t drink beer (unless it is all that’s left in the house) and saying no to the first drink has never been my problem. While some people may have to avoid any situation involving alcohol, I don’t. I can turn away from the mimosa and the Bloody Mary’s because they tend to give me heartburn. (Another side effect of alcoholism: a burned out esophagus and irritable gut.) Anyway, I can’t stick my head in the sand. Learning to say no is one of the new areas in my life I need to navigate. When everyone at the table has a glass of wine, I’ll have to be comfortable with my sparkling water. I have to learn to trust myself in situations I would normally have gulped down liquid courage or tried to dull my emotions. It is a terrifying feeling, not having the alcohol to lean on in this way, but also exhilarating.

All of this time, I have looked at my problem as a battle of wills between me and a beast I need to slay, as if this thing is not a part of me, but something separate. That is wrong. I understand now that to overcome this, I have to go deeper. I have to look inward, where I was once afraid to look, and take a measure. I need to examine repressed feelings. It is time to face them, acknowledge them, and let them go.

I’ve jumped off that cliff so many times, each time surprised and relieved when I opened my eyes the following day to still be here. Why do I repeatedly hurl myself headlong toward catastrophe, when I have lived a blessed life? Why do I waste what I have been given? I thought the only thing at the bottom––the true bottom––was tragedy. But what I am discovering is this so-called beast I’ve been fighting is nothing more than a confused and frightened little girl. A very young girl, traumatized by events at a very young age that have different meaning for me now, seem lesser and easily dismissed as I look through the lens of my older Self. I didn’t know––couldn’t know––that she was stuck there, that I had drowned her out as I grew older. I silenced her and then, when she tried to speak, drowned her in red wine.

This process of recovery is also, it seems, a process of discovery. I am finding out who I am, peeling back layers to reveal a sacred being that does not want to be numbed, drowned or otherwise hidden. That person at the bottom of a wine bottle is not me, but is a reflection of me or, rather, a shadow of some former version of me; a shadow I’ve cast out of a dark place. Though I’ve made forward movement toward the light, I am still looking back at the shadow. I am looking to the past and not to the future.

This is my turning point. This is me, turning toward the light. I will no longer stand looking down at my shadow or cower as it cuts me down, drink by drink. I will gently say good-bye to the lost child and let her finally rest, so that I may be the strong, creative, and courageous woman I am meant to be. And have been all along.

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