Posts Tagged ‘heartbreak’

“To Be or Not To Be”

At some point, perhaps years before the night of my book party, alcohol and drinking began to occupy an increasing amount of my mental real estate. During the workday I eagerly anticipated cocktail hour. Or I perseverated over where to purchase a bottle of wine on my way home from work. Among my shopping criteria were selection, price range, and distance from my condo. But most importantly, how frequently or recently I had purchased from a certain place. I feared becoming recognized as a “regular” so I rotated my patronage accordingly.

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Very happy to have been reviewed by Kirkus Indie:


“Hollenstein (Understanding Dietary Supplements, 2007) makes it clear from the start that her book has none of the drama of typical addiction memoirs. She has no harrowing, cinematic rock-bottom moment to report, for example; instead, she focuses on her slow realization that “[a]lcohol numbed both [her] pain and [her] joy.” This quiet process of introspection, however, proves to be just as engaging as any tale of alcohol-induced havoc. Hollenstein writes eloquently of the complex role that alcohol once played in her life, and her insights into drinking’s cultural currency are especially sharp. Of alcohol’s transformative power, for example, she writes: “Champagne with oysters transported me to Paris….I drank whiskey to express my saltier side.””

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wineFull disclosure: I don’t drink anymore. More than 6 years ago, on my 33rd birthday, I drank my last glass of wine. It wasn’t particularly memorable except for the fact that it marked what I sometimes think of as the beginning of my new life. More on that later.

For many years before that last drink, and ever since, I have spent a lot of time thinking about alcohol and drinking. Before I quit, that thinking came from a place of guilt and shame, and the mounting worry that I had a drinking problem. Since I quit, my thinking about alcohol has been more objective; it has come from a place of curiosity rather than obsession. And it is from that place that I would like to share some potentially unpopular, but very honest, thoughts about drinking.

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I first saw you in the movie Happiness. Your raw-ugly-beautiful performance cut through to my heart in a way I had never experienced before. “This guy isn’t afraid of anything,” I thought. “He’s fearless.” And you did it again and again: in Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Capote, Synecdoche, Jack Goes Boating, A Late Quartet. Balls out, I would call it now, with great admiration.

More recently I saw you at one of the Happy Talks at the Rubin Museum of Art. You sat with philosopher Simon Critchley and were as real and thoughtful and imperfect as I imagined you. The way you dropped your head into your hand to fully consider whatever probing question your co-host had posed. As if you needed to remove yourself from the presence of all our eager eyes in order to touch something deep inside, to find an uncompromising truth.

At one point he asked you “How do you know when you feel happy?” And after a long, silent pause, you shared that watching your kids enjoying one another – how they allowed you to enjoy them – that was the definition of happiness for you. I wished my boyfriend was with me to hear that. To hear a father’s description of the unexpected joys of children, the sheer gorgeousness of life’s messy spontaneous moments.

But then you questioned your own answer. You wondered whether this sort of experience felt like happiness because it spurred reflection on your own past and sort of filled in the holes you imagined existed as a child, or if it was a feeling of true unconditional love for your children. “What is real happiness?” we were all left wondering.

I also wondered about those holes. I have them too. I often feel like a problem that’s impossible to solve. Simultaneously too much and not enough. And like there’s something rotten inside me, something that I might be able to exorcise if I could just find its exact location. I usually feel that no one else can see or understand it. I walk around the city feeling like everyone has figured out something that continues to elude me.

Drinking helped. It numbed me to my experience and allowed me to get away from myself and my pain, if only temporarily. But after a while I realized it didn’t really help. And worse than that, it added to my pain by convincing me that I was weak, incapable of dealing with reality, altering my experience in a way that was wasting my life. Eventually even the slightest discomfort led me to the bottle, creating a vicious cycle. When I stopped drinking 6 years ago, those feelings got worse. Without my predictable anesthesia, I felt overwhelmed by suffering, my own and that of others. When I found the practice of meditation, though, I started to build up my tolerance to such discomfort. Like exercising a muscle that had wasted away, I am gradually becoming more resilient, more loving and gentle to myself.

When I learned that you left rehab a few months ago, I wanted to reach out to you. I started writing a letter, telling you that even though we have never met, in a very real way I know you and feel your pain. I wanted to remind you how strong and beautiful you are, that you are deeply loved and appreciated for your imperfect self. Even if you didn’t believe it at first, I wanted you to take my word for it and eventually you’d see. I wanted to invite you to meditate, to have the experience of sitting with that seemingly solid and immovable discomfort without reacting with drinking or shooting up or even going down the rabbit hole of habitual thoughts. To watch how the pain changes, even if only minutely, from moment to moment. I wanted to tell you that it doesn’t get easier, but it does get better.

But I put the letter away. I lost my nerve when I realized you might think my lightweight addiction couldn’t measure up to yours, that my suffering was nothing in comparison. I couldn’t see past my own insecurities, couldn’t be fearless like you were in Happiness, and chose not to put those thoughts of love and support out there, even if you never read them. Now I wish I had.

You will be missed.

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So, let go, so let go

Jump in

Oh well, what you waiting for?

It’s alright

‘Cause there’s beauty in the breakdown

So, let go, yeah let go

Just get in

Oh, it’s so amazing here

It’s all right

‘Cause there’s beauty in the breakdown

~ Let Go, Frou Frou


It’s been more than three years since I began the Drinking to Distraction blog. I remember setting it up the morning after Thanksgiving, my boyfriend asleep in the other room. I was still in Boston then. “Hello world” was the automated first post. I’ve written more than 100 since then.

What I have shared on Drinking to Distraction has always been first-person narrative. “Here’s what happened to me, maybe you can relate?” I never did get over the nausea of hitting the publish button after I had revealed some very embarrassing or personal aspect of my life: my obsession with alcohol; my cowardice; my fears, selfishness, and small-mindedness.

At times I attempted to write in the voice of someone else: quirky Jezebel-variety snark or a more philosophical tone. But whenever I did that, the posts fell flat and went nowhere. My friends might have read them; my mom probably printed them out and added them to her binder. But they didn’t really touch people’s hearts.

On the other hand, when I wrote ‘Why bother?’ gets a firm answer, Have I told you lately that I love booze?, Meditation, medication, and where I’ve been lately, Practicing imperfection, or the most popular one ever, Can we break free of the perfection prison?, something different happened.

These posts were unilaterally preceded by what I would call a total breakdown. As I was writing them, I cried, I thrashed, I felt desperate. I felt physically weak, as if I had hit bottom and just couldn’t fight the truth anymore. I typed them as I might scrawl an S.O.S. message in a bottle: PLEASE SEND HELP! And somehow, after clearing away all of the bullshit, by cutting through to the purest of emotions and struggles, I helped both myself and a few others.

You might imagine that once I noticed the potential beauty in such a breakdown, I would attempt to stay there. But you would be wrong. While I might dwell in it for a short while, my defenses soon take over. I try to distance myself from that vulnerability. I resist it, try to outsmart it, mistakenly thinking I can access such truth and harness that power without feeling the freefall. But I can’t.

I have yet to embody the bravery necessary to stay in this brokenhearted and open state with any regularity. In general, I know what I need to do: to practice meditation every day and to stay deeply in touch with the genuine heart of sadness, to build compassion for myself and for others by observing without judgment, by noticing how I feel and remaining curious. But sometimes I’m just too terrified.

Since I launched Eat to Love about two months ago, I have struggled to find my voice. Rather than the recovering alcoholic (quack?) who supports her non-AA recovery through meditation and writing, I feel compelled to sound authoritative, to portray myself as the registered dietitian who has her healthful shit together, who practices what she preaches, and has something to say that hasn’t already been said 8000 times before. I try to resist the regrettable trend of putting a number in my blog post titles – “Do these 10 things in the next 60 seconds to make your life 100 times better” [GAG!] – but then I give in.

I know that the things I fear revealing about myself are exactly the things that uniquely position me to be of real help to people: My experience with quitting drinking, my own dieting history, my day-to-day struggle to stay in the moment, to become more comfortable with discomfort, and to deal with my anxiety without medicating with food, Bravo TV, or neurotic thoughts. To share these things in a meaningful way, I know I have to go to that fearsome place of vulnerability, openness, and heartbreak. While I haven’t yet figured out how to stay with what Pema Chodron calls the soft spot of bodhichitta, if history is any indication (and if I can manage to keep getting my butt on that cushion), I suspect I am heading for another breakdown of sorts where I can’t help but face the beautiful truth.

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“All of you are perfect just as you are and you could use a little improvement”

~Suzuki Roshi

This past weekend, I attended a meditation retreat at the New York Shambhala Center. The focus of the retreat was “The Art of Being Human” and getting in touch with the concept of basic goodness. One of the exercises we did involved recalling a moment of basic goodness, a moment that was remarkable for its detail and brilliance, a moment in which we were fully present. My moment occurred to me immediately. In fact, I’ve written about it here.

Just recalling my moment was viscerally calming. I was in a time of transition in my life. Uncertainty, self-doubt, and fear were very present. But I also had a sense of confidence or trust in myself that taking a risk was the right thing to do. I felt very aware of the past and the future, but not pulled in either direction. Instead, I was held by the present moment with a sort of buoyancy, like being suspended in midair without feeling precarious or in jeopardy, like I was hanging out in the most comfortable hammock.

In the exercise this weekend, we used our respective moments to connect with the sense of basic goodness, the fundamental heart of our existence. And as a result, my practice felt very soft, clear, aware, and heartfelt. But connecting with a moment of basic goodness when everything feels OK is one thing. Recalling it when I am sad or lonely or angry or restless, that’s another. When I fear I will be a failure or, worse, that no one will even notice, how can I begin to remember this foundational concept?

When I asked her this very question yesterday, my meditation instructor’s guidance was “to expand and include.” Since then I keep saying the words to myself. Expand and include. I understand them but at what point will I feel them?

In the recollection of my moment of basic goodness, I recognize my desire to be held. Often I try to simulate this feeling by grasping onto events in the past or by fantasizing about the future. I am seeking some ground on which to feel stable but it never seems to work. And never am I more vulnerable to doing this shimmy between the past and the future – never am I less present – than when dealing with strong emotions. My work, therefore, is to connect with that sense of being held, of trusting in the moment, when the going gets tough.

To do this, I will need to cultivate enough space and openness to allow “negative” emotional states to exist without letting them pull me under, similar to how I was aware of past and future in my moment of basic goodness but able to remain in the present. This will allow me to experience the pain that is very real, but also to remember that there is more than pain. That the pain isn’t the end of the story. Holding these two seemingly opposing views is what is so complex about life, where things are never black and white. The idea that in a moment of pain, I could feel as held by the present moment as I did in my moment of basic goodness, that I could feel as well placed, that I am exactly where I need to be, is something I can imagine. And from there, I can begin to practice.

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I have been on vacation in Sicily for the last week and, as always, I am struck by the stark contrast between the raw beauty and sensuality of the place and a sense of disconnectedness between the people and one another, the land, the public spaces, and the natural resources. Here, as where I live in New York City and anywhere else I have traveled, we seem to forget how we are connected to one another, how our actions and words have consequences, our inherent interdependence. This contrast is magnified by an awareness of current suffering – developments in Syria, the fall of Detroit, soaring obesity and diabetes and cancer rates, and any number of issues that raise my anxiety levels to the point of overwhelm, helplessness, and hopelessness.

Oftentimes, when I reach such a point of delusion, something happens to shift my awareness just slightly, and to cause my heart to open rather than to shut down. That something happened last night.

My boyfriend, his cousin, his cousin’s cousin, and I met for a late-night drink (a non-alcoholic bitter for me) in Messina. Afterwards, we went for a little stroll along the water to see the restaurant where my boyfriend’s cousin works as a chef. It was late and I was ready to go home but we continued to walk out on a little stretch of the dock that allowed access to the boat slips. On our way, we encountered a beautiful cat, whose name I learned was Romeo. At that point in the evening, about 2 am, when my Italian language skills had reached a point of fatigue, feline seemed the only language I could understand. But I hesitated to reach out to him because my boyfriend had commented just two days earlier on the fact that I was more interested in the stray cats in Syracusa’s archeological park than I was in the 2500+-year-old ruins.

As we came back from the boat slips, we were greeted again not only by Romeo, but also by about 10 other cats, including kittens as young as 4 and 8 weeks, the parents probably not more than a year old themselves. It has always been difficult for me to handle outdoor cats. I understand that felines gingerly walk the fine line between wild and domesticated, that they probably fulfill their cat-ness by surviving outdoors. Still I always want to take them in, to give them a home. And I can understand how people become animal hoarders, how they just want to save one more. We stayed with the kittens for a few minutes. In my head I was rationalizing how the mild temperature, abundance of fish, and mostly friendly caretakers contributed to a life worth living for these homeless creatures.

Just as we were about to leave, I heard a cry. At first I wasn’t sure if it was human or animal. I walked to the limits of the dock, where a gate prevented me from going any further, and saw two of the older cats looking down into the water, where the concrete dropped off steeply. The cries grew louder and more desperate; it was clear they came from one of the kittens. I didn’t want to hear the cries. I didn’t want to feel what I felt when I realized a kitten had fallen into the water below, with no way to climb back to safety, that its mother was looking on helplessly, much the way I was, gripping the gate. Then the cries stopped.

A kitten just drowned, I said to the guys. They protested, especially my boyfriend who would rather protect me from any upsetting thoughts than allow me to think about an animal’s suffering. It just drowned, I said again, and I just stood here. For a moment, I felt a surprising sense of relief wash over me – relief at the idea that whatever suffering a small animal was experiencing had just ended abruptly. But then I heard it again and saw movement in the water. The kitten was swimming away from where it had fallen, further out into the water, but in the direction of the walkway we had access to.

As I realized what was happening, I turned around and expected to find the guys standing behind me motionless, exchanging impatient looks, as I was help rapt by the drama of an insignificant being unfolding before me. But instead, I found that one of them had stripped off his shirt, was prepared to dive, and was scaling the fence that separated us from the drowning kitten; another had gone in search of a net to draw it safely from the water; and my boyfriend preceded me down the walkway in the direction of the struggling kitten.

I got down on hands and knees and crawled out on the walkway, trying to call it toward me, seeing how it could barely keep its head above water, and that it was clearly torn between the terrors of the water about to swallow it whole and the giants clamoring to get at it. Something allowed it to come closer, though, perhaps the current or its own last efforts, and my boyfriend was able to extend himself to the point of toppling into the water, to catch a few hairs on the edge of the kitten’s foot and draw it in. He handed it to one of the others, who lifted it out and brought it to safety.

The kitten was limp and appeared to have already drowned. Some of the water it had swallowed was coming out of it’s mouth in a foam and it had defecated in that final way the body has of letting go. One of the guys held the motionless kitten with its head down so the rest of the water could come out. But it was gone. Dead, I thought, and again felt the relief of the end of its suffering. At least it didn’t get swept out to sea, I thought. At least we did what we could. At least we tried.

The dead kitten lay on its side, sodden, still, and not weighing more than a pound. I stroked its small body, and tried to imagine that there was some movement or warmth coming from it, when I heard a small cry, and saw a little movement of its head. By that point, one of the guys returned with some paper towel and we began to dry it, to massage it back to life, to clean up the mess of dying. As the little thing regained consciousness, it loudly protested the vigorous massage. The other cats came closer than they had earlier, perhaps no longer viewing us as a threat, to get a look at the commotion.

I watched as the other kittens played, tackling one another and rolling around by the edge. This happens every day, I thought. One of them falls into the water and drowns, or gets too close to the street, or crosses the path of someone who has forgotten his or her basic goodness. And life goes on. I felt helpless and thought, There are too many to save. There is too much suffering in this world. What is the point of trying to help when there is no way to succeed?

The kitten continued to be gently but firmly reinvigorated, this little thing that perhaps no one would have missed. We left him loosely wrapped in some paper towel, a safe distance from the edge of the dock, so that his mother could attend to him without onlookers. Maybe he survived the night. Or maybe the experience was too much for him and his small body gave out after we left. I don’t know for sure. The mixed emotions of knowing we had done what we could and recognizing that his little life was now back in the hands of a harsher reality weighed heavily on my heart.

Rather than a sense of relief at his rescue, I felt pulled to let go of hope for a happy ending and also a small sense of having done something important. I could have pretended not to hear the cries. The guys could have remained unmoved, emotionally and physically. But we all chose to make a difference in a small life by allowing ourselves to feel something. Holding these mixed feelings simultaneously is a tricky thing. In the end I was left with the confidence that it still matters to try, to make an effort, however small and seemingly insignificant. That many small efforts could lead to something greater. That we can always try to be the person who would save a drowning kitten in some small way every day.


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