“Mom, you smell different.”
He was sitting in a chair in the garden, waiting for me to cut his hair. (I’ve sent him to my stylist and I consider it a testament to his trust in me that he prefers to have me cut it.) He leaned forward and hugged me, then wrinkled his nose and pulled it away from my Steelers T-shirt.
“No, I don’t,” I said. I pulled the collar of my shirt away from my neck and hugged him again, sticking his nose against the skin of my collarbone. The scent of your skin never changes.
“Mmm,” he said. “Now you smell like Mama.”
He relaxed his tall skinny frame into the chair and I took the shears out of my pocket and cut his hair while the puppy milled around our feet.
The dog’s name is Flo. As in, Go With The Flo. (When I acquired her last year I could feel that the times they were a-changin, and I figured whatever name I gave her, I’d have to say it dozens of times each day, so I better make it helpful. “Flo,” I say. “Flow, come!” Instant prayer for flexibility. Semiconscious affirmation—flow. Move.)
My clothes smell different because I am living in a different place.
I’ve boxed up the stuff that matters: books (not nearly all of them, of course); files and research materials (including the letters, real letters, my parents wrote each other from 1959-1963, up until days before they were married). Some photographs.
Artwork: a chiaroscuro pastel self-portrait my son made three or four years ago; a watercolor portrait I made of him five years ago; a bronze nude made by Roxanne Swentzell, one of my favorite artists.
I bought this bronze when I was three months pregnant with my son. Because of the interaction I had with the artist in the parking lot of the Heard Museum, where she sold it to me, the cast has always spoken to me of self-acceptance.
Which is the project here. Self-acceptance.
I’ve also bought stuff for this place. I’ve used money that belongs to me to buy things I need. I’ve been urged not to do this. It has been suggested that I’m wasting money. I’m tempted to believe the things I hear from people I love because I distrust my judgment. What I’m learning is that things can always be resold and that peace of mind is worth more than any amount of cash.
Here’s one example.
The most meaningful of all of my new things is my bed. Buying a new bed for oneself alone is an act freighted with fairly hefty symbolism. … How can I describe this bed? As my Quaker surrogate mom would say, “It’s heaven.” It’s the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in. Is this because it’s a queen-sized $1,200 Beautyrest bed (purchased practically new, secondhand, for a fraction of the price—I say this to myself compulsively, defensively, subconsciously throughout the day), or is it because it’s in a space that’s private?
Not secret, private. I’ve pondered the differences between the two a lot since I got sober, especially in the past couple of years.
Here’s the punchline. Since I’ve been sleeping in this bed, I’ve slept the whole night through. I wake up feeling rested.
“A good night’s sleep is really a gift from God,” my friend Benedick said today at a meeting at which only three of us were present. I was able to cry at this meeting and feel in physical and spiritual ways the compassion and support those two friends were giving me.
I can argue with myself, I can withstand the chaos and confusion and catfights in my mind about what I’m doing—my lack of self-acceptance. But there is something incontrovertible about sleeping the whole night through. It tells me that on some deep level I’m experiencing peace. And peace happens when the war is over. Peace is about surrender, and acceptance, including self-acceptance.
It’s hard to believe that I used to think I could experience peace by taking drugs. If I think back, I can remember that it worked, sort of, for a while. I remember, before my son was born, taking a trip that I didn’t really want to take (but I didn’t admit that, even to myself: dishonesty was my contribution to that problem), and using one of my headache drugs to sleep through the night in a situation I didn’t want to be in. It zonked me out, and I woke thinking, “Wow—I slept through the night!”
But I didn’t rest. What I did was, I drugged through the night.
Actually sleeping through the night is so much different.
Maybe it won’t happen every night. Maybe I’ll stop sleeping through the night. Maybe I’ll regret all of this. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
It’s hard to write about this, you know? If I could do all this secretly, I would. My habit is to hide. But I can’t do that anymore. What I mean is, I literally can’t do it: if I carry on hiding, it’ll kill me.
“I can’t write about all this,” I told my therapist recently.
“Don’t you think people need to know what sobriety actually does to marriage?” she said.
The first time I remember having a pleasant sleep, I was 18 and I slept over Robbie’s place. His roommate was sweet enough to crash elsewhere. Robbie and I had played tennis for a few hours and we came back exhausted and happy. We slotted a tape (a tape!) into his cassette player and took off our clothes and slid under the covers. He spooned me, two kids who didn’t even know what “spooning” was, and I slept long and deep.
Once, in college, 30 years ago, when I visited Robbie over a holiday, we were talking late into the night in his king-sized bed (at home I slept in a twin-sized bunk bed, sharing a smoke-stained eight-by-ten-foot room with my sister), and we inadvertently fell asleep like that—he was supposed to be sleeping on the couch in the den—and his mother found us in the morning. She made us promise not to do it again and, good kids that we were, we didn’t.
I couldn’t relax into sleep at home, because I was hit at home, and I was screamed at, and I screamed at others; people drank and smoked and lied and hid and vented rage and love in unequal measure at home; there were chaos and confusion and catfights; the sheets all smelled stale and tarnished.
Of course I slept well in Robbie’s room: his sheets smelled fresh, his arms felt kind, and I felt safe.
I smell different because my bed smells different, and so does my new chest of drawers, and so does my new sofa. The whole place smells different.
Life smells different.