If Eve Had Been A Drinker

adam&eve

It’s Friday night. I’m sitting here with a big glass of Pinot. My dog is cuddled up next to me, and I’m waiting for the hubs to bring home dinner – pizza pie! THIS is my favorite time of day – wine o’clock. Last year, at my physical, I decided to be honest. On the line of the health history form that asks you to describe your alcohol consumption, I wrote, “one glass of wine daily.” In the past, I’d always just marked “Social Drinker.” The doctor read it and said, “So a glass of wine daily, right?’ with no tone of judgment. My reaction was a bit of a knee-jerk. “That’s right,” I replied defensively, “I’m a public school teacher and THAT is how I keep from losing my shit!” “Ooookay,” she said. In truth, I was only partially honest. Sometimes I have two big glasses. Sometimes I have one and some tequila drinks. It all depends on how many times I had a kindergartener throw himself on the floor in a tantrum or had two 5 year-olds have an octagon style throw-down over crayons or how many time I had my boob/butt patted to get my attention. In other words, it’s kinda like a teacher drinking game that I play when I get home.

I come from a looong line of people who like…and I mean really like…their drink. My paternal great-grandmother kept a cask of moonshine on her porch. She defiantly sold it by the cup…during prohibition. Of course, it helped that her son was the chief of police and most of the town was related to her. Some of my earliest memories of my mother’s family gatherings feature the most popular adult beverages of the time. I knew them all. What’s Uncle Howard got there? Oh, that’s a Harvey Wallbanger. What’s grandma drinking? Well, she made a big Tupperware container of Screwdriver and froze into a slushie! Grandma could never babysit on New Year’s Eve. She and her boyfriend always went bar hopping that night. My Aunt Char had her wedding reception in the fire hall next to my grandma’s house. “Oh, we can’t have alcohol in here? No problem! We’ll just set up the bar over in Mom’s garage.” One Christmas, Aunt Elaine gave everyone homemade Kahlua. Family reunions were always B.Y.O.B. (bring your own booze). That usually led to various family members getting into arguments, fist fights, engaging in expectedly inaccurate target shooting, and of course, the occasional random rifle shot into the night sky. I remember being surprised when my childhood friends didn’t know what a Whiskey Sour was or when their parents didn’t have a bar or liquor cabinet in their house. I thought everybody’s family was like mine.

Surprisingly, my first experience with drinking didn’t happen until the eve of my sixteenth birthday. What can I say? I was just an anxiety-riddled “good girl” who was too much of an emotional wreck to risk what little regard her parents had for her by engaging in underage drinking. The night before my sixteenth birthday, my “worldly” friend Kristen, who attended a fancy prep school on the East Coast, came to pick me. Maintaining an illusion of innocence, I bid my folks adieu and slipped into her junky brown Toyota Corolla hatchback. Away we drove. “Where are we going?” I asked her. “Not far,” she replied, smiling. We drove just a few streets over, to an area of my neighborhood that was under development. It was filled with partially constructed houses and was, largely, unoccupied. She parked the car in a remote corner of the area, reached into the back seat, and produced a bottle of Asti Spumanti and a bottle of Boones Farm. I know, right? You’d think a girl of her breeding would’ve made some classier selections, huh? The inexperienced drinker that I was didn’t know any better though, and it didn’t really matter anyway. These would serve the purpose and would’ve been enough for even the most seasoned drinker to have a pretty good time. Having been away at prep school, of course, Kristen had more experience drinking than I did. Actually, she had more experience with just about everything – booze, drugs, sex – everything. My world was tiny compared to hers. The only alcohol I had ever consumed prior to that night was a teensy bit of Kahlua during a slumber party I’d hosted one night when my parents went out and my siblings went to stay with my grandparents. This ridiculous adolescent “girls night” also included a viewing of “American Gigolo.” We’d heard that there was a scene showing male “full frontal,” and we were determined to find out what all the fuss was about. Since my family had HBO, fate made me hostess. None of us had much more than a nip of my aunt’s homemade coffee concoction that night, and the much-anticipated “full frontal” was disappointing. On my sweet sixteenth birthday, I was ready to take it up a few notches and do some big girl drinking.

Kris handed me the Asti. “This is for you since you’re the birthday girl,” she laughed. I might’ve been an inexperienced drinker, but, even at the tender age of sixteen, I was a bit of a baby badass. I’m Ancestry DNA certified Irish, see, so, I have a legit genetic claim to my ability to hold my liquor well – and hence the aforementioned familial propensity for it. And though I had never even laid a finger on a bottle of it before, that champagne cork wasn’t even a challenge. Kris looked impressed by my prowess. “Damn!” she exclaimed. Over the next few hours, we talked and drank and talked. She said she’d learned not to drink on a completely empty stomach, so she’d brought a couple snacks – a single bag of peanut M&M’s and some Corn Nuts. Trusting her wisdom, I picked the Corn Nuts for my entrée. We continued to drink and laugh and sing along to the radio. Somehow, the racket we were making didn’t disturb the occupants of the nearest house. If it had, we surely would’ve wound up with a police escort home. Once I’d polished off my bottle, she started the car. “Let’s get you home, “ she said. Okay. In hindsight, all of this was a series of truly terrible decisions on so many, many levels. While I’m fairly certain that Kris wasn’t nearly as drunk as I was, she wasn’t sober either, and yet she drove. Yes, she only had to drive a couple of streets over, but it was just dumb luck that nothing happened on that short drive back to my house. I dunno. Perhaps there was a guardian angel looking out for me that night, but it would not be the last time I did something so dangerously stupid and remain unharmed by it.

My dad was still up when we got home. Somehow we managed to get to my room without Dad detecting our intoxication…or so I thought. Before we both passed out on the bed, I distinctly remember thinking, “Man, this is the best feeling EVER!” Kris woke up at some point in the middle of the night, shook my shoulder, and said, “I gotta get back home before my mom gets up.” I nodded, groggily. I awoke a couple hours later, decidedly not feeling “the best feeling ever” anymore. And, just so you know, puking Corn Nuts made me unable to eat them again for, like, thirty years. In retrospect, my folks probably knew what I’d done. For one, I’m pretty sure they heard me in the bathroom being sick at 5 a.m. Second, it was super weird that my mom insisted on taking me to the mall to get my birthday present the next day. My mom worked at the mall and, normally, it was the last place she wanted to be on her day off. I think she thought the idea of going to the mall, feeling as sick as I did, might lead me to confess, beg to not go, and plead for forgiveness…you know, to “teach me a lesson.” I didn’t do too much drinking for a while after that.

Once I became an adult and a legal drinker, I only ever drank socially – out after work with the girls, at parties, on New Year’s Eve. I was pretty poor back then, so I really couldn’t afford to buy my own booze, and I mainly mooched off other people in those circumstances. Once I had kids, I almost never drank. I know right? It seems like that would’ve been the time I had the most reason to drink! Oh, I sometimes had a wine cooler or Zima on the rare occasions when we went to a restaurant or on New Year’s Eve. But most of the time I was just too busy being a mom. When I got divorced and my children and I moved in with my parents, I discovered that, once my younger brother and sister had finally moved out, my mom had begun a very particular Friday night routine after work. It was heralded by Todd Rundgren’s “Bang on My Drum” played precisely at 5:01 p.m. on her favorite radio station and consisted of feasting on an array of snacks, watching her favorite Friday night sitcoms, and drinking a big blender full of strawberry daiquiris. It was absolutely adorable. Here was this tiny little old lady rocking out to Todd Rundgren and blowin’ off steam after a hard week in the customer service department at JC Penney by getting her “drank” on! It looked liked fun. So, as a stressed out divorced, unemployed 33-year-old teacher intern raising two school-age children on her own, I was happy to join her in this weekly ritual when she invited me. Also around this time, my mother took an interest in wine and had found a local winery that she adored. She had a case of her favorite varietal shipped to the house monthly. It would’ve been rude to turn down her offer to share a bottle. And thus began my own relationship with the blessed fruit-of-the-vine, my beloved vino.

When we first met, my husband was not a drinker…at all. In fact, as unbelievable as it sounds, he made it well past 40 without ever having consumed alcohol. The reason stems from the traumatic interactions he’d had with his substance-abusing father while growing up. The smell of both alcohol and marijuana once induced extreme feelings of stress and anxiety for him. In the early days of our relationship, I had no idea about the depth of his reaction, and on one of our first dates, I asked if he minded if I had a glass of wine with my dinner. He told me that he didn’t, yet, after my first sip, his entire demeanor changed. It was then that I decided I loved this man more than I loved my wine. I went for years without drinking. Weeeell, I would occasionally hide a bottle of my favorite varietal in a cooler in the garage and enjoy it…on the down low…while watching my Britcoms when he had to work late. My husband’s feelings about alcohol intensified when a drunk driver killed my oldest daughter. So, it was amazing to me, a few years later, when he showed an interest in drinking wine “for the health benefits.” As you can imagine, I was only too happy to help him satisfy his curiosity. Yes, dear readers, I unfolded my arm, apple in hand, and extended an invitation as the serpent whispered in my ear, “Yeeesss! Go on! Do it!” And thus began my husband’s relationship with “demon” alcohol. I admit it. I corrupted him and officially earned my “Eve” card in doing so. Sadly, it was my only option since I never had the opportunity to take a man’s virginity. Well. Okay. I did have an opportunity. I just couldn’t close the deal. Sigh!

I could see it in my mind – St. Peter shaking his head and making a “tsk, tsk, tsk” sound as he crossed my name off the list. I’m not gonna lie. There are days when I feel guilty as fuck for corrupting my husband. Buuuut, man, do we have a goooood time now on Friday nights when we eat pizza and watch our Alaska shows on Discovery channel and DRANK! My little old mama had it right, y’all, and so did all those people in my drinkin’-fightin’-law breakin’ lineage. Life is short. Grasp those moments. Watch shitty TV for the sheer mindless pleasure of it. Eat the things you love, even if they aren’t “healthy”…sometimes. And don’t be ashamed to pop those bottles and DRANK! Just don’t drive when you do. Okay, playah?

Twelve

twelve

With a strong sense of accomplishment, I strode across the parking lot at 12:05 p.m. on my way to my car, fighting back tears. “Just a few more steps,” I thought, “and I’ll have done it. I finally did it.” Once inside the safety of my car, the dam broke. I drove the entirety of my blessedly short fifteen-minute commute with tears flowing, listening to “her song” – Jimi Hendrix’s Little Wing – and all the other songs that remind me of my “Rockstar.” What an incredible feat! I was finally able to get through a day of work…well, half a day…on the anniversary of my daughter’s death. Every year since that awful, awful day I have taken a “personal day” off work on the anniversary. My job as a public school teacher requires an amount of energy directed toward the needs of others that I just haven’t been able to muster on this day for many years. So, out of fairness to the little ones that rely on me, I have chosen to stay away and let another caring adult look after them…just for the day.

Completely fatigued after coming off of two thirteen-hour parent/teacher conference days, I approached this day with trepidation. The night before, I stood in the shower with my forehead pressed against the cool, smooth fiberglass wall with the water as hot as I could stand it blasting down upon me. My thoughts were racing. I just wasn’t sure I’d be able to make it through even the few short hours I’d have to function in my role. I was scared. I had visions of falling into a million pieces in front of a classroom full of five-year-olds. I saw myself sitting catatonic at my desk or sobbing uncontrollably crumpled in a heap on the colorful “big carpet” in the middle of the room while one of the “responsible” students wandered the hallways looking for an adult to help. “There’s something wrong with our teacher,” I heard them having to say. I was scared that someone might have to call my husband, tell him, “Something has happened to Christine,” and ask him to come collect me. Or, worse, that I’d have such a breakdown that it would create a “spectacle” and my boss would have to call an ambulance to come take me to the psychiatric ward of the nearest hospital…which is, luckily, just around the corner. As someone with an already precarious grasp on emotional stability, none of these fears seemed out of the realm of possibility to me.

I tried my best to go “off-routine” this morning and not arrive at work my normal whole forty-five minutes before the students. I stopped and picked up a little breakfast. I took a short detour specifically to get a Starbucks coffee, but I still arrived at school close to my normal time. I was the first teacher there. After the previous night’s late hours, most of my colleagues smartly chose an arrival time that would compensate. I sat at my desk, in the quietness, sipping my Starbucks, trying to center myself and prepare. As an introvert who just happens to be a teacher, the sound of the school bell is what I assume the sound of an audience applauding and the sight of the curtain going up are like for an actor. It means that it’s “show time.” It’s always felt that way for me, no matter what day it is. And, like a stage performance, today had a true “the show must go on” feel to it. The students arrived – but only about three-fourths of my class. Some parents kept kids home because half-days can be a pain to make childcare arrangements for. But fewer students meant a quieter morning and the atmosphere I needed to make it through. It wasn’t until I came back to the classroom, after dismissal, that I felt the pressure of emotions so neatly tucked away into color-coded, teacher-organized compartments rising to the surface and tears building. As I closed my classroom door and headed toward the main exit, I made eye contact with a particularly empathetic co-worker – a fellow newbie to the school. I froze, certain that his acute sensitivity would allow him to detect my distress. “Have a good weekend,” I mouthed, as I resumed my beeline for the door. Luckily, I escaped without further interaction. When I got home, I felt completely spent and utterly exhausted from the super-human effort it took to keep it down for four straight hours. My dog, elated by my unexpectedly early return, greeted me with uncontrollable full-body wiggles, sloppy dog kisses, and snorts. But even this, something that normally never fails to comfort me, was just too much after a morning of locked down self-restraint. I had just enough energy left to go to the cemetery and shed the last of this day’s tears. I had to take a nap after that.

Knowing my history, people who have recently experienced the loss of a very close loved one often ask me questions. They wonder if what they feel is normal. I tell them, “Grief is not a ‘normal’ condition, but whatever you feel is just what you feel and that’s okay.” They want to know how long they will feel as awful as they do right now. They want to know, “When will it stop hurting so much?” The short answer is, “It never will…completely.” The long answer is, “It’s different for every person.” I cried every single day during my thirty-minute commute to and from work the first two months after my daughter died. After that, it was just the thirty minutes on the way home. After that, it was just a few times a week. Eight months later, by summertime when I was off work for a while, I was only losing it once a week – usually on my weekly trip to the cemetery. Then, over the years, it was just special events that shook me – the day she should’ve graduated high school, her birthdays, holidays, and the anniversary of her death. The only way I can describe it is that it felt like my grief was slowly…very slowly…turning “inside out.” The happy life events of others started to lose their ability to cut me to the core, as they once did. Graduations, marriages, and the birth of children of people Sarah’s age no longer hurt me quite as much. Now I just wonder…with some sorrow…what Sarah’s life would be like. She would’ve been twenty-eight. My God! How is that possible? In my mind, she is forever sixteen…with long flowing, dark hair and a smile that lit the room. I can’t hear her voice in my head anymore and that hurts. Yet, for some strange reason, I can still hear her laugh. She was always laughing. She didn’t take many things seriously, my little wing.

Sarah’s burial plot has slowly lost the intense feeling of connection to her it once held for me, too, but it took a really long time for that to happen. I remember how incredulous I once felt, when I visited the cemetery, about how people could neglect the burial site of a loved one by only occasionally placing flowers there. Now I understand. After a while, that patch of ground loses the full emotional charge it once had and becomes just “a plot of earth” where the remains of your loved one are buried. The place my Sarah resides now is within me. It took twelve years for me to feel that way. It took twelve years for me to be able to work just four short hours of my “normal” day on the anniversary of her death. I think that says a lot about loss and the power it can have over our lives.

The first law of thermodynamics, also known as Law of Conservation of Energy, states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed; energy can only be transferred or changed from one form to another. I find comfort in this principle for a variety of reasons. I like to think of Sarah’s energy…floating around in the world…perhaps embodied in a sunrise or a snowfall or a moonlit night. I like to think about my love for her and hers for me, in the form of energy, radiating out into the universe and flowing into eternity. I like to think about how, one day, the energy that is me will join the energy that is her, and we’ll be joined again in a way similar to when I carried her inside me. Twelve years. It took me twelve years to feel beyond the pain…twelve years to feel the eternity of love.

 

 

 

 

The Exit Sign

exit

I confess. Part of me is afraid to put this out there. Yet another part is strongly compelled to. This post is real. This post is raw. Why? Because it’s time to throw back the curtain and expose an ugly hidden “shame” to the light of day. I’ve struggled on and off, all my life, with depression and suicidal thoughts. There have been many times when the voice of darkness has whispered into both ears, drowning out any and all other sounds. “They’re better off without you,” it says, “You’re better off dead.” And so ensues a spiral that sends me down into the pit of despair. I always know something is wrong when I can’t find the words in me and when that part of me from which writing comes feels numb. In my mind, I know what’s going on, yet I am shackled by my emotions. They imprison me. They bind me and prevent me from acting to help myself. When I feel this way, I am numb from the pain, and this pain is a tricky thing to explain. If you read this blog with any regularity, you know that I sometimes use it as a type of therapy…a catharsis, if you will. So, be advised, this is not a feel-good, fun, and humorous post. I will hedge a bet, though, that it’ll hit home for some of you in a scary-ass way. I will speak my truth here and hope it allows someone somewhere to understand a loved one…or, perhaps, themselves.

I’ve been trying to kill myself, in one way or another, ever since I was a child. Haha. I can feel you wincing already. Why can’t I just say, “end my life” or “commit suicide?” My dad liked to call it “committing sideways” or “going chop suey (crazy).” Nice, huh? Saying, “kill myself” embodies the reality of the feeling – you hate yourself so much that you feel compelled to murder yourself. Or maybe it’s that the pain is so deeply embedded within you that the only way to end it is to end you. I know, I know. It sounds brutal…and that’s exactly how it feels.

My attempts at self-destruction have taken a myriad of forms and have persisted throughout my life. I realize that reading something like this stated so frankly will make many of you uncomfortable, and, to you, I apologize. What can I say? On behalf of my fellow sufferers, I feel compelled to paint a crystal clear picture of what it is like to feel this way – to wish for…pray for…hope for…a day when you can just escape the pain. Yes, as hard as it is to understand, some people wake up many days feeling like they simply shouldn’t be here. I don’t know what brain chemical is responsible for that bullshit, but trust me when I say that it exists.

I was sexually molested when I was five. I was molested, again, from the ages of nine to eleven. I tell you this because I believe these events shaped my brain – physically and chemically. Yes. Really. Neuroscience has proven that trauma does, in fact, influence the development of the brain. With that being said, both the perpetrators of these crimes are now deceased, so there’s really no point in making an issue of the “who, what, and where” of it all. And, again, I’m simply mentioning these events because they – combined with the emotional, psychological, and (to a degree) physical abuse of my upbringing – were major contributing factors to my lifelong mental health issues. Depression is not always the result of trauma, of course. There are plenty of people that suffer from depression who had an uneventful childhood and grew up in a loving, supportive environment. That’s an important point. Depression is an illness, and like other illnesses, it’s indiscriminate.

Gentle readers, I’m writing this post in an effort to help you understand…those of you that love of us. I want you to know. I passionately want you to see that it’s us, not you. It’s not your fault that we feel this way. Hell, technically it’s not even our fault. It’s just the messed up chemistry of our brain and the raging battle deep within us. I know you feel like, “I should’ve seen it. I should’ve known.” Nope. No. Believe me. Some of us are really, really good at hiding it…and I mean REALLY good. In fact, some of us could get an Academy Award for how convincing a performance we give…and some of us actually have.

With all that being said, please don’t be mad at yourself. You love/loved us, and that should be/should’ve been enough. Know that there were times when you and the fear of hurting you were the only things that kept us here. Please don’t be mad at us though, either. Please don’t be angry that we got so lost in the maze of our confusion that we couldn’t find our way out…even though we heard your voice calling. It’s what we fear the most – you being mad at us and hating us as much as we hate ourselves for not being able to get it together. Please, just keep loving us – whether we are still here or not. That’s the other thing we fear – losing your love. Please know that we love you, too, even if you doubt that love in light of what we’ve done/contemplated doing to you.

If you had asked me thirty years ago if I thought I would still be here today, I could not, with any certainty, have answered in the affirmative. And yet here I am. As I’ve gotten older my battles have been fewer, with more time elapsing between them. I know it’s still inside me, though. Maybe it’s sleeping. Maybe it’s waiting. Maybe it’s looking for me to trip over some bump in the road and go tumbling so it can swallow me up for good. I don’t know. What I do know is that the words are here right now. I can find them. I can feel them. They’re flowing, freely, into my fingertips and spilling out onto this page. So, for me, it’s how I know I’m okay.

One of my favorite “self-help” authors, if you want to call her that, is Glennon Doyle. Many of her books and articles discuss what it’s like to live with depression, addiction, and suicidal thoughts. She describes the feelings and experiences with an eloquence I can only dream of having. One of her articles likens attempting or contemplating suicide to trying to use an emergency exit. Afterward, the sight of the “exit” sign remains at the edge of your consciousness. You know it’s there, glowing just within the peripheral vision of your mind, even if you’re not thinking about using it right now. “If I need it, there it is. There it is, if I need it,” you think to yourself. I know loving someone with one eye on the “exit” sign sucks. What can you do? Just hold our hand when the lights go down in the theater. Squeeze it when you feel us tense up. The tension is us wanting to leave, but, if our hand is still in your hand, we probably aren’t planning on using that exit sign today.

Hot Mess: My Life As a Fabulously Un-Photogenic Woman

 

hotmesskinder

The first photo of me, as a newborn, hid it. The focus of the shot was my dad – the young, handsome, and thin version of him. The newborn me, balanced on his lap, looked like a cute little pink piglet swaddled in a brand-new receiving blanket as white as a first snowfall. It was downhill from there, though. Photos from my first birthday featured me with bright red decorative icing smeared all over my face, looking like a baby vampire. Mom and Dad were pretty poor, back in the day, so Mom used to cut my hair herself. Needless to say, ages two and three featured the asymmetrical bangs that accidentally made me look like a 60’s mod trend-setting toddler. When I was four, Mom became obsessed with the television show “Family Affair.” One of the characters was an adorable moppet named Buffy, whose golden hair was always pulled into two perfectly pipe-curled ponytails. My mother so adored this character that she had me spend the spring/summer chilling in the sun, in my little rocking lawn chair, with my baby-fine baby hair saturated in the then-popular hair lightening product Sun-In. What’s the downside to that? Yeah. Well, the only thing that could make a preschooler look like a white trash, hot mess is having brown roots and flowing bleach blond locks. That’s how I started kindergarten.

Kindergarten was my first school photo. It featured those roots and a shirt whose collar spanned the entire width of my shoulders. The kicker? The color – goldenrod! Sorry. I just threw up a little bit in my mouth thinking about it. By first grade, I’d lost my first tooth – a front one. Yup! First grade’s school photo was a snaggle-tooth nightmare. The dental situation was only the beginning, though. Scottish plaid was all the rage that year (thank you, Bay City Rollers!), and my favorite outfit was a “maxi-dress” with a smocked bodice in burgundy/gold/green plaid. This was not a good look against my anemic looking, milk-white complexion. I guess I should just be thankful that my roots had grown out by then. By second grade, I’d begun to put on weight (a LOT of weight), but the real tragedy is that I’d begun to experiment with boxed home perms. I know, I know, I know. In retrospect, I can’t believe it either. I mean, a boney gal like Gilda Radner could get away with hair that looked like Joan Crawford’s in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. But a butterball like me? No, not so much. Happily, my perm fascination was short-lived. So, apart from my hair always looking messy/greasy/dirty – whether I’d just washed it or not – school pictures in third, fourth, and fifth grade were awful mostly due to the horrendous fashion of the times – a navy-blue polyester dress with a white peter pan collar and a bonus tiny rose applique on the neckline that looked oh-so-flattering against my fat girl double chin, a polyester pinafore dress in hunter green with a gold floral blouse, a floral kelly-green blouse with a white cardigan. Have you thrown up yet?

Then, as I got older, I began “experimenting” with grooming techniques. The photographic evidence of this is featured in my seventh-grade school photo. I had THE coolest dolman sleeve sweatshirt… and that was a BIG get for me with my skinflint of a mother. It came from the Juniors department at JC Penney! Super cool! Unfortunately, the other “accomplishment” from that year was my failed attempt to remedy what I considered to be a “uni-brow.” In actuality, it was just a few stray hairs. In my thirteen-year-old mind, however, I was straight-up Frida Kahlo. Consequently, in my seventh-grade school photo, I am missing approximately a third of my left eyebrow, thanks to a failed attempt at shaving between the two. My eighth-grade photo featured yet another “fashion” trend – tinted glasses. Why, yes, I DO look like a stoner, but NO, I was not one. Hey, thanks for noticing, though! I looked pretty normal in my ninth, tenth, and eleventh-grade pictures…well, except for being fat. With that being said, after we got the proofs of my senior pictures, the pose I chose for the final one was based solely on how thin I thought I looked in it. Never mind that I appear to be looking off, wistfully, toward a future that was n’er to be as the thin, gorgeous, and photogenic lead singer of the next Go-Gos! Sigh! Some things never change. How thin I look is still the standard with which I choose any Facebook profile pic.

For many years, I put school pictures behind me. Then, at age thirty-five, I became a public school teacher. Of course, that meant the annual “picture day” was back in my life. Once again, evidence of the “hot mess” that I am has been thrust upon me year after year thanks to LifeTouch school photos. The good thing is that teachers don’t have to pay good money for these ghastly things. LifeTouch gives a few prints to them for free. I usually toss them in the closet, though, after giving one wallet-size pic to my dad. He gets a big kick out of showing it to people and saying, “This is my daughter. She’s in kindergarten” and then laughing like Pee-Wee Herman. “Haha!” The bad thing is that this photo also takes the form of the id badge I wear. It’s a daily reminder of just how un-photogenic I am. There it is…every day…hanging, literally, like an albatross around my neck. And, believe me, at this point in my career I have quite the collection of gag-inducing photos.

I think the only photographs of me I feel are truly “good” might be the ones from my second wedding. My dress, the most expensive garment I’ve ever worn, seemed to fit just right, and somehow this important day miraculously seemed to coincide with a “good hair day.” My complexion was clear that day, too. The home tooth-whitening system I’d been using for the previous six months seemed to have been effective. Although I did my makeup myself, exactly the way I always do, on that day it made feel like I was glowing. I felt beautiful, and, somehow, the photos translated it into the most flattering images of me that have ever been made…which, given my history, is no great feat. Still, I can’t help but wonder if the joy of that day somehow radiated into the molecules that compose the human shell I lug around, enhancing them temporarily, in the way photogenic people experience every day. It was nice.

Look. I’m okay with the fact that I don’t look like Gigi Hadid. At my age, really, I truly am. I’ve got other things going for me, I think. I’m just curious, though. I’d REALLY like to know what the secret is. How do you people do it, those of you that don’t have to take forty selfies before you find the one that’s the least disgusting to post as your profile pic? How do you do it, those of you that are always the best-looking family member in those holiday family snaps? And how the hell do you manage to look SO good in a fucking driver’s license photo? Really! HOW? Us ugly folks wanna know!

The Romantic History of an Out and Proud Nerd

hurtheart

It is an understatement to say that I was a “late bloomer,” in terms of dating. My introverted nature combined with my weight problem made interactions with the opposite sex awkward, at best, and difficult more often than not. Male individuals were a primary source of bullying for me, including my own father, so I had a difficult time trusting anyone of that gender. As I look back, there were a handful of boys that were nice to me. In middle school, I usually spent lunch period in the library to escape the torment of the lunchroom. Occasionally, however, bullies found their way into my lunchtime sanctuary.  I will never forget the day Mike Z., a popular seventh grader when I was in eighth grade, heard them teasing me and told them to “fuck-off” and leave me alone. I never got a chance to thank him at the time. It meant a lot to me, and if the opportunity ever presented itself again, I would, most certainly, tell him.

Later, in high school, there was James – a fellow outcast and nerd. In retrospect, I realize now that he was the first chance I ever had at having a boyfriend. Sadly, though, my social retardation sabotaged that prospect. He was a stereotypical nerd. He wore thick glasses, had braces, and smelled less than hygienic. He took Latin. I took German. The cool kids took French and Spanish. James was a Dungeons & Dragons playing, Star Trek loving, Jethro Tull fan dork, and he was completely unapologetic about it. I, myself, was a “closeted nerd,” with impeccable hygiene, who would vehemently deny my dorkiness when confronting about it. Being the smarty-pants that we were, James and I had several classes together and often talked. I’m pretty sure it was him that sent me an anonymous Candy-gram on Valentine’s Day during our junior year. I never told him to his face, but I made it abundantly clear, through our mutual friends, that I was NOT interested. Looking back, I now freely admit that it was an asshole move. Actually, as I write this, I am laughing and thinking that, if somehow he were to read this, James would surely contact me to let me know that I am out of my mind and he was NEVER interested in me.

Like many people, I also have the “one that got away.” His name was (and still is) John. I kept my crush on him a secret, at the time. Like James, John had had a reputation for being a misfit. In middle school, he’d had a penchant for wearing moon-boots and a puffy silver winter coat all year long. It was also a widely known fact that he talked to himself, loudly, while walking home from school every day. Unlike James, however, John was like the Ugly Duckling. In our senior year of high school, John turned into a very good-looking swan. It was appropriate that we had Mr. Harmon’s Chemistry I together. Along with our mutual friends Jackie and Karen, we had so much fun in an otherwise boring class. There were many days when I found myself laughing so hard I could barely breathe…and that’s an amazing thing to be able to say about a high school Chemistry class. I’m a sucker for a man who can make me laugh, and I’m pretty sure he liked me, too. Still, I was haunted by his middle-school persona. Surely everyone remembered him as the moon-boot wearing weirdo! So, when Karen suggested that John and I go on a date, I dismissed the idea with a “What? No!” I didn’t give a second thought to how John might’ve perceived my reaction. Secretly, I wanted nothing more than to date him…be his girlfriend…marry him! But that was the end of that, and it is one on the list of my life regrets.  I have done a bit of Facebook recon (i.e. stalking) on him in recent years, like most of us have with former flames (right?). He is now a lawyer, happily married, has children, and is living in Florida. Good for you, moon-boot boy, good for you…and I really mean that. In fact, if I could ever muster up the courage to attend a class reunion at which he was present, I would tell him he was “the one that got away” for me – a fact of which my current husband has been apprised.

The summer before my senior year, I became particularly chummy with Michelle, a girl in the “semi” popular group – kids that could be likened to the “D-list celebrities” of the high school set. She’d done some modeling and her mom was a sales rep for Estee Lauder. This nerd thought both Michelle and her mom were the epitome of coolness and glamour! I remember shyly asking Michelle’s mom if she thought I was pretty enough to model. “Uuuuh, weeeell, maaaaybe. Yeah, maaaaybe!” she said, struggling to keep a straight face. At least she was trying to protect my delicate teenage self-esteem. My mother would’ve said, “Oh my God! Are you serious?”

A favorite pastime of high-schoolers from my and many previous generations was “cruising” on the main drag of town – in our case Westnedge Avenue. We spent many a night that summer driving up and down Westnedge in Michelle’s black and gold GTO. I was in heaven! I’d finally made it to outer upper echelon of teenage society, and the fringes of popularity were just fine with me! The thing is, I was, in actuality, what is now known as the D.U.F.F. – the dumb, ugly, fat friend. Michelle kept me around because I was funny…well, that and because I worshiped the ground she walked on. That summer Michelle had set her sights on an “older” (as in a year out of high school) guy we’d met while cruising. Being the “good friend” she was, Michelle made it clear to him that he needed to find someone for me. He knew just the guy – Dave. Apparently, Dave had a “thing” for girls like me. That’s right. Dave was a teenage chubby chaser. That was okay with me, though. In my mind, I was “livin’ the dream” that summer, and there was no way I was going to turn away the attention of an “older guy.” We had a pretty good time, the four of us – hanging out at the lake, cruising Westnedge, and playing PacMan at StarWorld. The summer culminated in the moment that every teenage girl dreams of – my first kiss. I was babysitting one evening, and I’d asked the lady I was babysitting for if I could have “a friend” over. I had a well-established reputation for being a responsible, reliable sitter, so, of course, she agreed to my request. I put the kids to bed earlier than usual and called Michelle. Moments later, Michelle, her man, and Dave were at the door. The four of us planted ourselves on the deck, around the pool. I really don’t remember what prompted the kiss. It was probably because Michelle and what’s-his-name were sucking face, as usual. I dunno. The kiss was decidedly anti-climactic, not at all what I’d imagined in my girlhood daydreams. Dave was a smoker, see, and, no offense to you smokers, but it was just kinda gross. When summer came to an end, so did my “relationship” with Dave. Michelle and I went back to school. Michelle’s guy and Dave went back to…to…frankly, to “loserville.”

As fate would have it, Dave and I would cross paths again when I was a sophomore in college. I was working at Toys R Us part-time while going to school, and I became friends with a co-worker named Cheryl. In the course of conversation, I found out that Cheryl was…Dave’s older sister. It wasn’t long before my “summer romance” with Dave was rekindled and, somewhere along the way, he became my first “real” boyfriend. Yes, I was nearly twenty before I had a boyfriend. I told you I was a later bloomer. My parents were relieved by this small indication of my normalcy, but my father didn’t hesitate to express his opinion of Dave. I distinctly remember Dad’s reaction to my disastrous attempt at trimming Dave’s hair. “Good God, Christine! Why did you make that boy any uglier than he already was?” he said. Dad also angrily and quite vocally expressed his discomfort with our open displays of affection, which, Dave complained, made him feel unwelcome in our home. I didn’t feel at ease at his apartment with his roommates. It seemed like we argued constantly.

Desperation drove the relationship to last about six months. I desperately wanted a boyfriend, and I found out, well into the relationship, that he desperately wanted a curvy girl who would bear him a child. He confessed to me that he’d gotten a girl pregnant in high school, but she’d moved away with the son they’d had. His heart ached from the loss, and he desperately wanted another child. What? Nope! No way was I going to flush my future down the shitter to be his baby mama! Needless to say, my lack of willingness to help him fulfill his paternal longing ultimately led to the demise of the relationship. In spite of the circumstances of the break-up, I was devastated. Adding insult to injury, we broke up just before Valentine’s Day. In the dramatic fashion that was a hallmark of my youth, the day after it went down, I felt compelled to drive myself to the frozen shore of Lake Michigan…in February. Why? I can’t even tell you. It’s not like it was some kind of meaningful, special place for Dave and me. In fact, I’d never even been there with Dave. All the same, I drove the entire forty-miles, sobbing violently while listening to Bryan Ferry’s “Slave to Love” on the cassette player of my car. I sat in my car in the parking lot of South Beach and sobbed some more…rewinding and replaying “Slave to Love” a least fifty times. Then I turned around and drove back home, certain that I would never love again. Two weeks later, I met Eric.

My good friend and Toys R Us co-worker, Kathy, introduced me to Eric. She knew about my break-up with Dave, and she was committed to making me feel better. I spent nearly every night drinking coffee at Denny’s after work with her and various other co-workers. Eventually, Kathy and I became solid besties and coffee at Denny’s turned into partying at her house most nights of the week with her roommate Kirk. Eric was a friend of Kirk’s and a hot-mess of a man. He was incredibly intelligent, like genius level smart, and a true hedonist. “If it feels good, do it!” was his motto. Eric was from a wealthy family. His dad had died and left him tons of money, which he promptly pissed away in true hedonistic fashion. He’d bought and crashed an ultra-light plane. He’d also bought a bonnet macaque monkey, which he kept in a poorly constructed DIY Plexiglas enclosure that he rarely cleaned. His biggest purchase, however, was a plot of land in B.F.E., rural Marcellus in southwest Michigan, on which he planned to build. As far as I know, the closest he ever got to that plan was dragging a double wide onto the property and living within it in abject filth. Still, I was enthralled by his intelligence and eccentricity. The hedonist in him found the admiration of a nubile co-ed intoxicating, and the narcissist in him felt no remorse for taking advantage of my naiveté. Needless to say, I am not the kind of girl that can have a meaningless rebound fling. When he ended our…whatever it was…to go back to his former girlfriend, I felt rejected and forlorn. But Kath had a pretty wide circle of friends, and one day I met someone that I now consider my first true love, Milan – T.J. to most people.

“You guys should totally go out,” Kathy teased. “Yeah, I’d take her out,” T.J. said. His response stunned me. I thought he was waaaay outta my league and far too good-looking to want to go out with a shy, chubby, suburban white girl like me. But “go out” we did, and it didn’t take long for me to fall hard. It was another “summer” romance, but this one was intense – more like all those teenage daydreams of mine. Of course, this relationship was NOT something I could share with my family. The subterfuge involved, however, was part of the thrill. Though it’s unlikely that my father will ever read this, he would be completely enraged to learn that T.J. spent many a night that summer in his house – sneaking in after the parents went to bed and shimmying down the drainpipe the next morning. Frankly, I’m shocked that the neighbors never mentioned it to Dad. Okay. Now, I know that, if you’ve read my previous blog posts regarding my family (my relationship with my father, in particular), you might be thinking, “Aaah, this was a clearly a case of teenage rebellion – working-class white girl falls for inner city black guy to spite her parents.” This is not so. I truly loved T.J., and I probably would’ve spent my life with him had fate not intervened. He was funny and caring and smart. He was a devoted father to the kids he’d had with his high school sweetheart. He was also incredibly unsure of himself, insecure, and prone to self-sabotage. He couldn’t keep a job, but I saw and loved the potential hidden beneath his “lounge about” exterior. Sadly, his low self-esteem often led him to gravitate back toward the women…or rather, one particular woman…who refused to put up with his inconsistency and had cast him aside. Ultimately, sharing his devotion was more than I could take. I had given him an ultimatum. We needed to be exclusive or be over. He never really gave me an answer, but, one day, his decision became clear. He showed up at the home of our mutual friend Rick’s ex-wife, drunk and passed out in the back seat of Rick’s car. The thing that made me know we were over is the strangest part. I went to the car to talk to him, and I saw that he’d had his hair put into cornrows. Strangely, that was what told me he’d made his choice. He didn’t need to say it. It was her not me. Still, to this day, T.J. was the first man whom I felt ever truly loved me for who I am.

A couple years later, when I had moved out of my parents’ house and was living alone (ironically, in my racist hillbilly grandfather’s apartment building and in the same apartment where I’d spent the first five years of my life), I was surprised to receive a call from T.J. We met for drinks, and it was like no time has passed at all. He said he wanted to give things another go, and we instantly fell back into the comfort of our love for one another. He moved in with me, and, almost immediately, the same problems ensued. I pressed him to find a job. He found work, but quickly flaked out on the job and got canned. I found him at the corner bar that day. He looked like a naughty puppy that’d made a mess on the carpet. The final straw was when he “shared” a venereal disease with me. It wasn’t me sleeping around, so, clearly, my beloved was. He confessed that he had, indeed, been unfaithful with the “cornrow braiding” woman…again. “I’m sorry, baby, you just want too much from me,” he said. This time I was angry. “Pack your shit!” I told him. All his worldly possessions fit into two boxes. We put them in the car, got in, and rode in silence. I dropped him at her house. That was the last time I saw him.

After T.J., I felt obligated to live “the single lady” life…for about a minute. I met my first husband not long after my relationship with T.J. ended. We started out as friends. I married him because he felt “familiar” and “like home.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t until after years of therapy that I came to understand that “home” had not necessarily been a  healthy place for me. So, as it turned out, neither was my marriage. For my kids’ sake, I stuck it out for nearly ten years. Then, one day, I realized my marriage wasn’t the kind of example of a “loving” marriage I wanted to set for my daughters. Unfortunately, though, thanks to my dear old dad I ended up having to live with my soon-to-be ex-husband during the process of our divorce. Dad told me I couldn’t move back home until we sold our house. It was then that I began a long distance, online relationship with Graham.

I’m ashamed to say it, but, technically, I suppose you could say I was a cheater. I began a relationship, albeit a “pen pal” association, with another man while I was still married. I think the “experts” call it emotional adultery. Graham lived in Australia, and we connected through an online pen pal message board. We exchanged a few emails and felt an instant connection. We began writing each other more and more until we were emailing daily and realized we were falling in love. That love gave me the courage I needed to endure living with the emotionally unavailable and psychologically abusive husband I had “officially” rejected until I could leave. I love our daughter. So, I won’t go into detail, but it will suffice to say that the experience was incredibly traumatic. Graham and I emailed each other daily for over two years. We learned everything about one another. It’s amazing how close you can feel toward someone you’ve never met in person simply through the power of the written word. After a while, we began speaking on the phone every month or so, and we made plans for him to come to the States for a visit.

In the summer of 1999, I graduated with my teaching degree and was finally able to move my daughters and myself out of my parents’ house and into an apartment of our own. We planned for Graham’s visit to coincide with this event. The prospect of his visit had kept me feeling buoyant through the darkest of times. I will never forget the excitement I felt when I drove to Chicago to pick him up from the airport. It felt like a dream. He stayed with me for a month while he did research on his graduate project at the local university. We knew each other so well, but being together in person wasn’t as easy as we thought it would be. Still, when it was time for him to go back to Melbourne, the goodbyes were tear-filled and difficult. He went back to his job and his graduate work, and I began my first teaching job. We still wrote one another but not nearly as often. To me, it felt like he was becoming distant. To him, it felt like I was creating the distance. I was lonely without our constant communication. I decided to start dating. That was when I met the love of my life, my current husband, Michael. Little did I know how deeply my “moving on” would wound Graham. I truly thought that the diminished communication was his way of subtly disconnecting from me. His reaction to my telling him about Michael made it clear that this was not the case. He was angry and very hurt. After that, we kept in touch, but not like before. Over time, our relationship seems to have healed, and we’ve been able to maintain our connection. I still consider him one of my closest friends…no, more like family, and I care deeply about him. I think he’d say things are good between us. It’s funny how love can change shape. I daydream that one day Mike and I will visit Melbourne. Graham will show us the sights. He will think Mike is fun and funny and sometimes seems like an overgrown child. Mike will think Graham is a pretentious, know-it-all old man, but one whose clever, biting sarcasm he admires.

When I met Mike, I felt like I’d been through the ringer. It was my ad on Yahoo Personals that led him to me. The only reason he was on the site was because his roommate had, without his knowledge, placed an ad there for him. His reply was intelligent, honest, and funny – all the things I was looking for. We exchanged phone numbers via instant messenger, and he called me. The connection was instant. We talked for hours. At the end of our conversation, I agreed to meet him at my favorite restaurant, which wasn’t far from his apartment. I’d been through numerous blind dates, at that point, and, frankly, I wasn’t very confident that this one would be any different. But it was. He was handsome and funny and charming, just like he was on the phone. I felt comfortable with him instantly like I’d known him for years. In fact, I felt comfortable enough to invite him back to my apartment, something I’d rarely done on a first date. He was a perfect gentleman, though, thus confirming my instincts about him. It might sound like a cliché or some kind of fiction, but we’ve been inseparable ever since that first date. In fact, not a single day has gone by, since the day we met, that we haven’t spoken to one another, even before we lived together, and, even after we were married, at times when we were apart physically. That’s pretty remarkable for someone with my relationship history. It takes someone with an extraordinary capacity for nurturing to heal an animal as badly wounded as I was. It took time and great patience. He worked diligently, with surgeon-like skill, to heal the wounded hearts of my daughters, too. He was always there for us, and that proved his commitment to them. Ultimately, he earned their love and trust, too. I couldn’t have found a better father or a better husband. It was clear. The remarkable part, though, was that he, like me, had been through more than his share of heartbreak, mistreatment, and pain. The odds of us finding one another, in the whole wide world, and being able to overcome the wounds of our respective pasts were pretty slim. Yet, we did. We’ll have been married for fifteen years in September.

Last winter, Mike had to travel out-of-state to train for his new job. He and I were apart for some of the longest periods of time we’d ever experienced since that first day we met. During this time, I happened upon and fell in love with a song by Nathan Sykes (featuring Ariana Grande) that had recently been released. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, music has always had a profound effect on me, and the lyrics of this song were like a window into my deepest feelings at the time:

From the way you smile to the way you look, you capture me unlike no other. From the first hello, yeah, that’s all it took, and, suddenly, we had each other. I won’t leave you. Always be true. One plus one – two, for life, over and over again. So, don’t ever think I need more, ‘cause I’ve got the one to live for. No one else will do, and I’m telling you, just put your heart in my hands. I promise it won’t get broken. We’ll never forget this moment. Yeah, we’ll stay brand new, ‘cause I’ll love you over and over again.

Because, as I mentioned, I was a late bloomer, I spent the majority of my youth mentally dating celebrities. That’s not just a meme on Facebook. It was my childhood/adolescence. I had been a bride at least a dozen times, in my mind, by the time I was eighteen – Mrs. Davy Jones, Mrs. Donny Osmond, Mrs. Peter Frampton (“oooo, baby, I love your way”), Mrs. Shaun Cassidy, Mrs. Tony Geary (the famous “Luke” of General Hospital), Mrs. Tom Baker (the late 1970’s incarnation of Dr. Who – eeew, I know, right?!), Mrs. Gerry Cooney (Irish-American boxer from the mid 80’s), Mrs. Paul Hewson (Bono), Mrs. Rik Mayall (obscure British actor/comedian – yeah, I had a “thing” for UK guys), and on and on and on. So, the reality of romantic relationships presented a difficult learning curve for me. I realize that no one really knows what they’re doing when it comes to love. We nerds, however, find it exponentially more baffling than the average person. We have enough trouble navigating friendships, acquaintances, and…well…pretty much any kind of social interaction. Deciphering the mysteries of romance is, to us, what translating Latin is to most people. Love and relationships are like a foreign language. It took me decades to find a person whose “language” I could speak and who could speak mine, and it was only then that all the walls finally came down. I finally felt loved the way I needed to be loved. In the words of Bryan Ferry, “To need a woman (man), you’ve got to know, how the strong get weak and the rich get poor. Slave to love.” In other words, you have to be vulnerable. You have to open yourself up completely to know real love. I feel lucky to have found it, but there’s still a small part of me that wishes I didn’t have to have taken such a circuitous path. After all, I did grow up watching all the John Hughes movies. With that being said, now lemme say this, “Hi, I’m Christine. I’m a nerd, and I’m proud!” – just in case you were wondering.