2016 was The Year of the Cookie until it was The Year of Surviving Indescribable Grief. On the advice of a ridiculously wise friend—a woman who has inquired deeply into her own grief rather than looking away from it or trying to fix it, as we are so encouraged to do in our discomfort-avoiding culture—I set a very low bar for what surviving looked like. I remember we were talking about self-care, that elusive and fantastical beast that so many people were encouraging me to capture and tame, and she recommended that I purposely reframe self-care based on some self-harming activity that would signal to everyone that I was in serious trouble. Not the usual serious trouble of deep grief over the loss of one of the most important people in my life, but the sort of serious trouble that should signal to other important people in my life that an intervention was in order.
“Whatever that thing would be for you,” she counseled. “And every day you don’t do that thing? That day is a win.”
“Heroin,” I answered promptly.
I don’t know if my response (or its immediacy) surprised her. It surprised me. For a moment. But then its rightness settled in. I am not a person who uses recreational drugs, or even a person who has more than two drinks in one go terribly often. That’s because I am (or I have been) a person who seeks out opportunities to not be in my body. Sometimes I crave them, create them.
I don’t really know enough about the experience of addiction to imagine myself prone to it, though there is certainly addiction in my family. I’ve used and quit using addictive substances before. But I do know the profound relief that accompanies the disembodied feeling of intoxication in all of its senses—diminished physical and mental control; enthusiasm, exhilaration, or elation by means of intoxicants; poisoning—and I’m frightened by how much I like it.
Using heroin is the best and worst sort of disembodiment, the sort I wanted desperately during those days at McCall House Hospice, those days of waiting for my mother to die. It’s a profane feeling, such waiting. I would have done most anything to not feel during those days and all the ones that came after, to have escaped my body and that room and this life in which my mother is dead.
I’ve tried to explain the “I Didn’t Do Heroin Today, Therefore Winning” thing to people, mostly when they ask me how I am, with that tone and that eye contact to suggest they really, actually want to know. So I really, actually tell them, “Well, I haven’t done any heroin today, so I’m counting it in the win column.” Perhaps they think I’m being flip. Or deflecting. Or exaggerating. Or perhaps they look at me and see a woman who would never, ever even consider taking heroin, much less want to take it. Wrong on all counts.
It has gotten me through the disaster that was 2016, this low-bar approach to self-care. I did not do any heroin in 2016. And in the last few weeks, I’ve been toying with the idea of raising the bar slightly. Just considering it, mind. And just inching it up. An incremental approach to anything would actually be a major victory for me, as I am (or have been historically) a person who thinks the only kind of change that really counts for anything is the total-overhaul variety.
So I’m considering the following revisions (just thinking about them, so don’t hold me to any of these):
I didn’t do heroin today, and I ate at least one food item that occurs naturally in the world.
I didn’t do heroin today, and I brushed my teeth. (Maybe twice. And maybe even flossed.)
I didn’t do heroin today, and I have spent at least some time wearing something other than pajamas.
I didn’t do heroin today, and I read from a book that is not about death.
I didn’t do heroin today, and I did not watch more than three hours of television.
I didn’t do heroin today, and I went outside for longer than it takes Matilda to do her business.
I didn’t do heroin today, and I wrote something other than a grocery list.
I didn’t do heroin today, and I danced.
I didn’t do heroin today, and I smiled without having to fake it.
Perhaps 2017 will come to be called The Year of Marginally Better Life Choices (At Least Some of the Time).