“Fearless doesn’t mean no fear, just that the fear won’t keep you from this step.” -Kimberly Salico-Diehl
I was unpacking some boxes earlier today (I moved in a year and a half ago so, you know, priorities) and came across a treasure trove of newspaper and magazine clippings and comics I’d amassed over the years. They’re the kind of things you laugh at when you see them or they make you think a little so you cut them out to adhere to some surface in your house, or perhaps your workplace. I don’t know how long normal people keep these things but I could never justify throwing them out because they seemed so…me. So they moved with me, in their little pile, ensconced in a box full of rarely-used (and now, gratefully, mostly thrown-out) bathroom items such as dried-out silver polish and almost-but-not-quite-used-up shampoo. (I am unsure as to whether or not anyone gets into a shampoo-throwing-away conundrum as I have in the past but I got over it and about half an hour ago chucked about fifteen or so bottles with a teaspoon of product at the bottom that have moved with me through five different residences since I moved back to Fort Collins from Boulder into the garbage. Well, and the recycling as applicable. YES!)
I’ve been having a hard time unpacking these boxes (was the 18-month hiatus a clue?). I start them and then I see what’s in them and my heart heaves and then tries to dissolve itself in my stomach and I whisper, oh no, not now, and fold the flaps back up and walk away. This is not because I am a packrat -thought I am a bit of one- or want to be walled in by egg boxes for the rest of my days. My room is tiny enough without the walls being lined with evidence of my past that I simply cannot come to terms with. So I put it on a to-do list for today -get through the big 3 boxes that line the wall closest to my bed so I have a little more room. The rest another time, but get through those.
One of the first artifacts I found after a LARGE box of mailing envelopes (WHY?!?) and an old beach towel (yes! Towels are awesome!) was an empty paper bag inside of an empty plastic bag. I picked it up gingerly, dreading the weight I feared was inside. I really expected it to have either an empty pint bottle of Evan Williams green label, or, perhaps worse, one with a few teaspoons of product left it in. As my hand closed around the bags I steeled myself. They were empty. With a sigh of relief, I threw them into the trash can. I am a big reuser of plastic bags -I have an indoor-only cat and two roommates, so I clean her litterbox often- but that one just had to go. At one point it held my salvation, my desperate, deadly need. ALL of the emotions came flooding back: the mild hyperventilating that preceded a “you’ll feel better drink” (translation: a long gulp or a few…probably 6-10 shots each time). which I needed at least hourly to keep from going into withdrawal. The slightly elevated heartbeat. The flood of saliva in my mouth and the maddening need to drink, need to drink, need to fucking drink!!! I pushed the bag as far down into the garbage as it would go. I took a deep breath. I started going through the rest of the box.
I think for most people the dread of going through old things is probably relegated to a few boxes or an unexpected item here and there. But when you spent the first six of the last twelve years ramping yourself up to and the last six of the last twelve years actively pursuing, attaining and living life as a full-blown, completely out-of-control, how-is-it-you-are-still-alive alcoholic, everything before sobriety holds some promise of past terrors. I talk to people all the time in the rooms who come across parts of their old stashes here and there. I live in mild terror of the same because I am pretty sure there’s a mostly-empty bottle somewhere among the boxes that makeup my past and surround me in my present, in the murk of my life that I was to reclaim and rebuild. Every bag I had to go through in those boxes -numbering many after that first one; I am apparently found of rounding up random piles of objects, bagging them for exploration at some future date, and whiling them away- made my heart catch a little, struck a little sob in my throat, until I got through them all and found…nothing. And with that, relief. My past might be lurking somewhere to haunt me -there are still several more boxes and likely many more bags- but it wasn’t here. Now. This time.
When I got to the pile of clippings, though, a very strange feeling came over me. I’d been collecting these things -not a ton of things, maybe a half dozen or so- for years. Easily since I’d been drinking my way into active alcoholism. Maybe a few from a little bit before, but all definitely, terrifyingly, part of my drinking days to some degree or another. What would these things say about me? Would I shudder and grieve and detest the person I was, tear them to shreds after all these years? Would I have some compassion for that poor sodden drunk Dondi who spent so much of her life actively dying before coming into the rooms and reclaiming her place in life? Who was this person I held onto, shuttled in boxes from place to place to place, packed and unpacked and repacked carefully so many times throughout the years? Was there any trace of who I am now, of who I am striving to be? I carefully began sifting through the pile of magnets and yellowing, fading clippings, comics, this strange bit of life murk.
As it turns out, even at my sodden worst I had some grasp on my own authenticity. I laughed or smiled at everything I turned up, from an old Get Fuzzy comic to a somehwat odd bit of romantic advice from a newspaper that I remember cutting from the Rocky Mountain News when I was in college at CU, living with my then-boyfriend Bob. I really liked it then…and still do now. A funny political cartoon that aligned perfectly with my wry sense of humor at the election of President Obama in 2008. An Ashleigh Brilliant cartoon that reads “Anticipating a pleasure can be the best part.” I realized, as my shoulders relaxed and my breathing calmed, that even at my worst I still held onto the pieces of me I felt the most me about, the best parts.
As I do share this home with two other people, however, and my rather aggressively social personality already guarantees they probably get more of me injected into their lives than they really want anyway, I kept it all to myself. I have a little magnetic board that was just waiting to be covered in treasures, so I covered it.
The Big Book says we will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door upon it. When I summoned up the courage to face those scary containers of my pent-up past I found only a few things that made me cringe and sigh, a lot of almost-empty shampoo bottles, and a fistful of gold in curling, fading newsprint that showed me I had always been, and thus far remain, me.