Thursday, December 27, 2007

Grandma: "I think we'll all feel better after we see a few people getting slaughtered."

I'm in a dark place. Allow me to share.

Well, it's been awhile. I haven't submitted updates to CRONOLOGY for a very long time primarily because I haven't been practicing CRON. At times I entertained the thought of treating this blog as my own general journal/diary, and going ahead with postings about miscellaneous stuff unrelated to my stalled CRON practice. But in the end, I felt I wanted to keep things somewhat on topic.

The reasons for my lack of CRON are varied and numerous. Or maybe that's "excuses" rather than "reasons." So much has happened since my last entry that I'm not sure how it all fits together with my CRON practice. Maybe I'll just start back in July and see where this goes. [Author's note: Danger--it goes pretty far--and pretty far afield; turn back now.]

I was just getting back into CRON at the end of July. I think I wanted to drop some pounds before a Labor Day trip to New Orleans that I'd been excitedly anticipating. Well, that didn't happen. I'm not even sure why I didn't stick with it that time. It was summer, there were gobs of great fresh vegetables and fruits available at farmer's markets all over Chicago.

New Orleans was fun--I stayed for 8 days with three friends from DC. We ate nothing but horribly unhealthy (but so delicious) food the entire time. And of course, we drank massive quantities of alcohol. I mean, a LOT of alcohol. Like "frat boys on spring break" quantities of wine, beer, gin--you name it. If I was conscious, and it wasn't morning, I probably had a drink in my hand. We started at the hotel, and continued on the streets of the French Quarter until all hours of the night (or morning...).

This alcohol business is not an insignificant issue for me: I have long struggled to keep my alcohol intake to a low moderate level. On CRON, it's pretty easy, because alcohol eats up calories without providing nutrients, and I'm usually unwilling to feel that hungry in order to maintain a high level of alcohol consumption. Never mind that it's counterproductive for longevity. Or depression.

And I'm always mindful that I come from a long line of heavy drinkers. My grandmother on my father's side died of either lung cancer (from smoking) or cirrhosis (from drinking) or both--we can never remember. At any rate, she was often "in her cups" as it were. My grandmother on my mom's side went to rehab twice before kicking her long-time addiction at around the age of 55. She's been sober now for 25 years. I have spent my adulthood partying with my parents. Family occasions are always occasions for drinking. Alcohol-drinking behavior is encouraged and reinforced constantly in my family, and in our culture at large, and resisting it, just like resisting our obesigenic food environment, is difficult when you thoroughly enjoy the stuff.

My own drinking habits have been spotty over the years. I've gone long periods with moderately normal consumption, then gotten a little carried away for awhile, then turned to abstinence for long periods. When I go too far for too long, a switch seems to flip in my brain that orders me "stop drinking completely," at least for awhile, and I usually comply with that command. Inevitably I quietly start drinking again later, and the whole process repeats.

New Orleans at the end of August was rather a binge for me. I came back to Chicago feeling polluted and ill. I went "on the wagon" yet again, for a couple months. Then I started drinking again in November. So far, so good--for me at least. I'm managing moderation for now, and I'm enjoying the times I can have cocktails or wine with my friends over dinner. When I resume CRON, the drinking will necessarily be further diminished, and I'm fine with that.

But from the period of just before Thanksgiving until today, I have had an ugly glimpse of the possibilities that await me if I should fail to remain vigilant about my alcohol use.

My uncle (my mother's brother) has been a long-suffering alcoholic, just like his mother. He's fifty, and the last 10-15 years have seen his alcohol abuse go from an immoderate low-level to the level of "how the hell is he still alive?" While my mom and I knew about his problem, he'd been concealing it from his parents (my grandparents).

Then Grandpa died the Friday before Thanksgiving. Grandpa was 96 years old, had lived a long and happy life, pretty much did what he wanted to, and his death itself, while sad for the family, was not a tragedy. It was just his time. He failed pretty quickly, spending a week in the hospital before dying of heart failure.

But during that week when he was dying, my uncle was on a 24-hour a day binge for a week. He didn't go to work. He didn't go to Ft. Wayne to be with his dying father. He missed the death because he was drunk and felt guilty and then drank more.

When we finally all got to Ft. Wayne to deal with things, my uncle was a physical train wreck. He was so sick, we persuaded him to go to the ER. He was admitted to the hospital two days before Thanksgiving with kidney failure. Everything about his addiction finally came out in the open at the hospital. We had Thanksgiving dinner with him in the hospital cafeteria. It was dreadful. We were mourning grandpa's death, and at the same time worrying about my uncle.

After a few days of detoxing in the hospital, they got his kidneys working again. He was released on the Friday after Thanksgiving, pledging to enter rehab and deal with his addiction. He was contrite. He said all the right things. But he was not ready, it seems. Three weeks later, he was at it again.

Meanwhile, with grandpa gone, grandma decided she didn't want to do the usual Christmas, so we all went to a bed & breakfast in South Bend, Indiana, for a Christmas away. I should clarify: when I say "we all" I mean me, my mom and her husband, grandma, and my drunk uncle. My druncle. We are a small and dwindling family. Neither my uncle nor I show signs of producing offspring, and in both cases, I can't say that's a bad thing. Some families are just better off dying out, I think.

My druncle was already deep in his cups when he arrived late at the b&b. Everyone was pissed because he was 5 hours late and had made no effort to call and provide an update as to his whereabouts. The holiday went downhill from there.

Christmas was basically a captive, two-day long intervention filled with acrimonious exchanges, bitter recriminations, petulent stomping off, faux-contrite returns, promises of rehab followed by pouty retractions of promises of rehab, veiled suicide threats, excuses, excuses, and more excuses.

On Christmas eve, we needed escape from the pressure cooker we'd stepped into. It was decided we'd go see the new film version of "Sweeney Todd" with Johnny Depp. My sweet, little old grandma said without a trace of irony, "I think we'll all feel better after we see a few people getting slaughtered." It was one of the few times I laughed over the holiday. "Grandma, I have waited my entire life to hear you say something like that!" She was kidding, but on the other hand, her little joke quite illustrated the dark place we all felt we were trapped in together. When violent, vengeful, bloody murder seems an escape, you know you've got issues.


The trouble is, we didn't feel better. "Sweeney Todd" is NOT a feel-good movie. Vengeance doesn't deliver redemption here. Everyone dies horribly. Well, perhaps not everyone, but you get the strong sense that the few who live aren't looking forward to living. Squalid London is a depressing prison captured in an aggressively grayscale color pallet. You can smell the sewage in the streets, taste the rotten cat and rat meat in Mrs. Lovett's pies.

I enjoyed the movie--the performances were terrific, the music gorgeous, the cinematography breathtaking--but it was also thoroughly disgusting and depressing, and perhaps not the best choice for a break in our intervention. After the bloodshed, we headed back to the Inn for round three (or was it four?).

More acrimony, more bitter recriminations, more promises of rehab, and Christmas was over. Happy Birthday Jesus...hope you enjoyed our ill pageantry.

But lo! There is a new light on the horizon: my mom and grandma headed to Indianapolis Wednesday to escort my druncle into rehab. Seems they persuaded him to do it, and so while he was drunk as ever, he managed to work out arrangements with his employer, and was checked into an inpatient facility Thursday! That may sound depressing and traumatic, but honestly it's the only spot of good I've felt in, well, I can't really remember.

So, how to tie all this back to CRON, and thus, render it appropriate for CRONOLOGY?

The events of the past two months have really exposed a reality of human life that I identify as helplessness, or perhaps it's more accurate to say powerlessness. In so many things, we are powerless: powerless to save dying grandpas. Powerless over drugs or alcohol. Powerless to help the ones we love when they meet their match, be it alcohol, faulty relationships, or simply circumstances beyond their control.

I may be powerless, helpless to fix all these problems in others. But I can make some choices here and now about how I respond to them myself. Will I use the pain and darkness as a reason, or excuse to abandon my aspirations? Will I medicate myself with food and alcohol and escapist television and anything and everything else I can grasp at to avoid the discomfort of the present moment?

I've concluded that the vices that haunt me--my immoderate food consumption (I've ballooned to 230#, the fattest I've ever been my entire life), my occasional forays into problematic drinking, my seeming difficulty committing to CRON--these all stem from my very human (yet ironically mindless) impulse to avoid the occasion of discomfort, and to escape it when it appears.

I tend to give in to the itch, to scratch until I bleed, rather than wait it out with equanimity and an open heart and mind. Discomfort and pain are not abnormal things to be eradicated at any cost. They are facts of life. Learning to stay with that notion, to non-judgmentally label pain and discomfort and thoughts that distress me and then relax into them, to stay present, to sit with them awhile with a sense of curiosity instead of fear: that is my challenge.

If you've wondered, yes there are Buddhist principles at work here in my gratuitous musing. Buddhism is something I've been exploring lately. And reconciling certain Buddhist principles with a quest for health and longevity (with their inherent forward-looking hopefulness about the future and the desire to delay or even prevent death) is something I have pondered. But that's a topic for another day, one that deserves its own entry.

For now, for today, I'm just satisfied to have reopened this blog. If anyone is reading, thanks for hanging in there. And while I am considering my options for re-engaging in CRON, and I'm sure I will have some things to say about it in the coming days, for now, well, no promises. I've got a few more pressing things to get through first.

I wish the best to all for an acceptable conclusion to 2007, and a good opening to 2008.


Ali said...

Chris! It's so lovely to have you back. I can't tell you how much I understand both you and your family. I have found myself tipping one too many back once in a while as of late - surprising myself at reaching a level that I never thought I would be at. Such is life though. I feel better at being able to recognize it. Have a very happy new year! ali

Anonymous said...

I commend your honesty and WELCOME BACK. We've been staring at that pepper for too long!

Deborah said...

Nice to have you back Chris....I've kept you in my reader for just this occasion. I'm gald to have you back. I too saw Sweeney Todd over the holiday and yes, it was quite a shock..then my hubby and I made the mistake of watching Eastern Promises on DVD later on that evening..the first scene? A throat being cut. I screamed in shock and it also kept on happening! (But it's a good movie too) Anyway... I look forward to reading about your coming back to the's not really that dark and it's quite nice after a while.

Happy New Year!


Anonymous said...

Welcome back indeed, Chris! Your blog is so well-written and great to read. You bring so many issues to the table that whether or not you're writing about CRON really doesn't matter! We'll just keep reading. I do hope, for your sake, that you are able to improve your nutrition and subsequently lose some weight. You'll feel better just for doing those things. Have patience with yourself, though. We'll all be watching your progress from afar and sending good thoughts! Judith