Alcoholism and Writers

April is Alcohol Awareness Month. I mention that not just because it’s something everybody should pay attention to, but because writers in particular seem to find it cool to talk about getting sloshed, snockered, loaded, pie-eyed drunk. In almost every piece in a writers’ newsletter about the last writers conference some author went to, nine times out of ten there’ll be an elbow-jabbing reference to time spent at the bar. The implication is that real writers drink like guppies. Alcohol is such a theme in the lives of some writers that their fans study their work and studiously compare their pre- and post-sobriety writing — as if the alcohol was the only determining factor in their output or talent.

Regardless of the myth about alcohol going hand-in-hand with literary genius, the fact is that too much alcohol not only harms the body that consumes the hooch, it also harms the families of the drinkers. By too much alcohol, I mean more than one drink a day for a woman and two drinks a day for a man. I mean drinking so much that you can’t remember what you did. Or said. Or went. If that has happened only once or twice in your lifetime when you were young and dumb and lucky enough to live past it, you’re probably not an alcoholic. But if it happens regularly, you have the disease of alcoholism. And let’s be honest here, alcoholism is a disease like diabetes or asthma, and it has to be treated as a disease. Furthermore, alcoholism isn’t cool, and it won’t make you another Hemingway. Unless you’re thinking of the way Hemingway’s life ended.

If you feel that your inner genius comes out while you’re drunk and causes your writing to soar to poetic heights, remember the Lot Syndrome. Lot’s daughters got him drunk and had sex with him because he was the only man around and they figured if they were to have babies they had to have them with him. Lot has always been cast as the innocent victim of his daughters’ nasty plan, but if Lot had been too drunk to know what he was doing, he wouldn’t have been able to do it. If a writer is too drunk to know what he’s writing, he won’t be able to write anything at all. If you need to lose your inner critic to write well, find some other way to lose it rather than pickling your liver.

More important than any other reason for an alcoholic to stop drinking is the effect alcoholism in the home has on children. Growing up with an alcoholic parent causes children to become adults beset by guilt, fear, shame, depression, low self-esteem and loneliness. Your children deserve better, and so do you. If you’ve been aware for some time that alcohol is ruining your life, this month is the time to take charge. Every city has AA meetings, and AA has the best track record of any treatment plan. If you try one group and don’t like it, try a different group. You’ll find people from every profession   — including writers — who are ready and able to help you learn how to have sober fun. And when you’re completely sober, your inner genius will still be there, smarter than ever.

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Confessions of an Accidental Vegetarian

I didn’t really set out to become a vegetarian, it just sort of happened. First I stopped eating beef because beef is bad for you from just about every health angle. For a while, I substituted ground buffalo when I craved a burger, but that didn’t last long because buffalo has an odor that turned me off.

Pork went the same way. I love bacon, and enjoy a nice pork roast. But after I learned how industrial hog farmers stack pigs atop one another in cages, that pigs have the intelligence of a three-year-old child, and that they cry real tears, I couldn’t eat pork again.

Lamb has always been problematic. The idea of eating a baby sheep, I mean, not the food itself. Lamb chops grilled almost burned on the outside and pink inside are delicious. But I wouldn’t be able to eat a rack of lamb while I watched lambs playing in a field, so I quit eating lamb.

For a while, I ate chicken and turkey, but then I watched a documentary about how chickens are raised on those big agribusiness chicken farms, and that did it for chickens. I still occasionally get a few slices of peppered turkey breast at the deli and enjoy a turkey sandwich, and I’ll eat turkey at Thanksgiving and enjoy it.

I eat wild Alaskan sockeye salmon too, but not farm-raised fish of any kind because they’re fed junk that I don’t want in my body. And now that shrimp are living in water polluted from about a zillion different sources, I’m staying away from them too.

Instead of it being a bummer to quit eating meat, becoming an accidental vegetarian has awakened my taste buds so that food tastes much better than it did before. I now appreciate the flavor of vegetables in a way that I never did when they were just side dishes. I don’t want the flavors covered up with sauces or spices, either, I want them  clean and real. Brussel sprouts sliced thin and sauteed in a little olive oil with some slivered almonds, some minced garlic, and a few shaves of lemon peel become a satisfying main dish instead of something to eat with a slab of meat. Skinny green beans tossed in olive oil with slivers of roasted red pepper are to swoon over. And don’t even get me started about the earthy, voluptuous flavor of baked beets or garnet yam.

As for protein, I get plenty of it from whole grains, nuts, and dried beans. I’ve always liked brown and wild rice, and now I’ve discovered quinua and sprouted-grain breads like Ezekiel. Sliced avocado on Ezekiel bread has become my favorite lunch, and it has a ton of protein.

As I said, I didn’t intend to become a vegetarian, but I’m very glad I did.

Hearing Service Dogs

One of the greatest joys from writing about a fictional pet sitter is that I get mail from real pet sitters, real dog and cat rescuers, real trainers, real breeders, real assistance animal providers. They all expand my knowledge and awareness. I’m continually amazed at the just plain downright goodness of people who love animals and who serve as links between four-legged beings and two-legged beings.

People, for example, like Sheri Soltes, founder and President of Texas Hearing and Service Dogs in Austin, Texas. Sheri’s group of dedicated people train dogs to work with people whose lives would otherwise be limited because of difficulties with hearing or mobility. Hearing dogs let a person know when the doorbell rings, when the oven timer sounds, when the baby’s crying, when the phone rings, or when the alarm clock is going off. On the street, they not only alert a person to dangers like oncoming cars, their presence lets other people know they can’t be heard, and that it isn’t rudeness that makes a person fail to respond to an unseen greeting.

A service dog makes it possible for a person with any kind of physical disability to live a normal life with more confidence. At the same time, the dog provides loyal friendship and unconditional love. I especially like the fact that Texas Hearing and Service Dogs adopt adult shelter dogs and train them as service dogs. Sheri says they “turn strays into stars” by taking dogs the rest of the world has thrown away and transforming them into sophisticated assistants. They take pride in the fact that all their training techniques are positive — no corrections, no metal collars to choke or pinch, no scolding. Their methods are very similar to marine animal training, and for fifteen years they have had mentors from the marine animal training world.

When I meet people like Sheri and her coworkers, I am awed at their generosity of heart. You can learn more about them at Texas Hearing and Service Dogs.

Saved By A Poem

Every time I think I’ve learned as much as I can learn, grown as much as I can grow, evolved as much as I can evolve, I find myself teetering on the edge of another precipice, forced to spread my invisible wings and flap hard to move to a slightly higher place. Those flying lessons always come in the midst of times when I’ve been forced by some gritty circumstance to pay close attention to the here and now.

The latest nudge to flap my puny wings arrived as a gift of a book by Kim Rosen titled SAVED BY A POEM (Hay House, 2009). We’re never presented with a new lesson until we’re ready, so I suppose I must have been ready for Rosen, even though reading a book about poetry was the last thing in the world I would have consciously chosen to do. I read it almost as a duty, because the book had been a gift.

I’ve never been a poem person. My need to understand has always gotten in the way of hearing poetry the way it should be heard. I’ve always tried to find meaning in the lines of poetry, and if meaning wasn’t immediately forthcoming, I’d grow quickly bored with it. And I definitely didn’t have time for the the soft squishy Hallmark kind of poetry about flowers and sunsets. The only poetry I’d committed to memory had been foisted on me in school, lines that seemed comical because an entire generation had been forced to learn them, and because educators failed to realize that lines like “A tree whose hungry mouth is prest/against the earth’s sweet flowing breast” was bound to elicit giggles rather than awe in twelve-year-olds.

But I learned from Rosen’s book how to absorb lines of poetry into my flesh and bones, to feel the power of the words and let them work their magic. I learned that, like music, the rhythms and sounds of spoken poetry cause measurable changes in the human body.

The book has a CD in the back of various people reciting their favorite poem and speaking a bit about what the poem means to them. I’ve listened to it several times, pulled out all my books of poetry, found a CD of the poet David Whyte speaking some of his own poems — another gift I’ve had for a long time and now listen to with new ears. I find myself feeling starved for poetry, as if I’ve been deprived of something vital for a long time. SAVED BY A POEM may not have saved me, but it certainly changed me.

Confessions of a Cheapskate with an Aching Back

I’m such a tight-wad, it’s pathetic. For a computer chair, I’ve used an inexpensive armless task chair for a long time. It raised and lowered, swiveled, had casters, worked just fine. But I had neck and back pain, so a physical therapist recommended twisting a towel into a tight roll and putting it behind my back when I sat in the chair. The towel wouldn’t stay twisted and I spent as much time repositioning it as I spent working, so I hit on the idea of rolling up a small bathmat whose rubber backing had worn away. It was nice and cushy and stayed rolled, especially after I put rubber bands in several places. To anchor it to the chair, I used a strip of clear packing tape. Worked just fine — amazing how dumb ideas seem brilliant at first.

But then the seat began to seem too hard, so I put a cushion on it. That worked just fine too, for a while. But after a while that cushion seemed to need its own cushion, so I added one that had a thin layer or air that shifted as I moved. Worked just fine.

So for quite some time I sat in a ratty-looking chair with a bath mat taped to the back and two cushions balanced on the seat. I’m not sure when the moment came when I realized that I needed to bite the bullet and spend money on a good chair. It may have been when people who’d never been to my house before went home and emailed me a photo of their own attractive desk chair. Just in case I’d been thinking of getting one, they said.

I began by checking local stores to see what they had in stock. They pretty much all had the same chairs. The chairs swiveled, they tilted, they raised, they lowered, just like the task chair I had. They came in leather or fabric or mesh. The prices ranged from under a hundred dollars to over three hundred. I couldn’t tell much difference in them, but some of them had been recalled because the backs had snapped off while people sat in them. Some people had been injured pretty badly, so I began to consider safety as a primary issue.

I nearly had a nervous breakdown scanning office chairs online where the prices range from under a hundred to over a thousand. That took three full days. I ended up with three choices that met all my criteria, but they were all way out of my price range. I decided I’d stick with my old dumb-rigged secretary chair, but a good friend who listened to me whine about how I couldn’t afford what I wanted lectured me about the importance of being comfortable while I write. Spend the money, she said, put my physical needs first. I said I might need that money someday for groceries. She said if that day ever came, she would bring food to me. Finally, with a weak and trembling finger, I clicked the buy button on the computer screen. The die was cast. I had crossed the point of no return. Well, actually, the company had a 30-day return policy and promised to pay for shipping if I sent it back, but it was still traumatic to hit that button.

My new Steelcase Leap chair came today, and I love it. I got the armless model in tomato red. It fits my back perfectly. It adjusts as I move. I don’t know how I ever worked without it. When the Visa bill comes, I’ll remind myself that it takes a strong back to write, and that my friend will bring food to me if I’m ever broke and hungry.

Flu Blessings

Man, have I been sick! This is day 13 of the witch of all vicious viruses. It’s like the worst morning sickness I ever had, or the time I drank 5 margaritas in a row. Except those toilet-hugging episodes only lasted a short time, and this seemed to have moved in to stay. The doctor’s office didn’t exactly tell me not to darken their door and spread it around, but they strongly encouraged me to stay in bed, drink lots of fluids, and tough it out. So I have slept like a hibernating bear, done a lot of moaning and groaning, and been profoundly grateful for good friends.

Suzanne and Bob were at my door within 20 minutes of my call for help, bringing Tylenol, hot water bottles, Sprites, saltines, and popsicles. Veterans of the bug, they assured me that I only felt as if I were dying, and they went way beyond what anybody has the right to expect from other people. Way beyond. Another friend, Jane, drove around looking for special foods I might be able to eat, stocking my refrigerator with enough jello to float the entire neighborhood. Linda called every day to see if I needed anything, and went to church and prayed for me. When the temperature dipped below freezing, Michael, who hates cold air more than anything in the world, came and shivered while he covered tender plants in my yard with sheets. Kim ran errands for me, and Edith gave up her own time with a quantum healer and asked her to direct the computerized energy to me instead. (By the way, the distance energy healing sort of lifted a mental fog I’d been in, and when I’m well I’m going to go see the practitioner for some more sessions.)

At one of my lowest points, when I dissolved into helpless, frustrated, angry sobs, Bob said, “This is how we learn humility.” He was right. This virus has imparted enough humility to last the rest of my life. But every problem comes with a gift in its hands, and the gift has been the outpouring of love and friendship. In time, all the pain and various indignities will fade from memory like childbirth, but the gift of friendship will stay with me forever. So as bad as it has been, and while I sure as heck never want it again, I’m thankful for this awful bug.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver

Eunice Kennedy Shriver died this week, and while her family and friends mourn her loss, countless people who never met her face-to-face are also taking a moment to pay tribute to her. Mrs. Shriver probably did more to improve the lives of people with intellectual disabilities than any other person in history. Because one of her sisters was profoundly retarded, she had a keen compassion for the challenges of the disabled and their families.

She was instrumental in forming President Kennedy’s Panel on Mental Retardation, and for the development of the National Institute of Child and Human Development. She was primarily responsible for a network of research centers at major medical schools across the U.S. and for the study of medical ethics at Harvard and Georgetown Universities. But she will be best remembered for the Special Olympics, which has grown from a modest beginning in the summer of 1968 to almost three million athletes in more than 180 countries.

Disability is not partisan. It hits conservatives, liberals, and independents with equal devastation. Eunice Kennedy Shriver gave an extra measure of dignity to every disabled person. She was a hero for the entire world.