Or . . . How Falling Apart was Just the Thing to Bind Me Back Together
by Claire Rudy Foster
*Editors Note: Recently, Claire "bared" all by sharing her tattoo story. Now, she bares herself in a different way. People in recovery will recognize the wreckage. However, more importantly, her adept and muscular writing show that transformation is—indeed—real. - DD Maurer
Never make an irreversible decision. When I first started getting loaded, this was common sense. Then, one at a time, I started doing things I couldn’t go back on. It was like losing my virginity over and over again—the painful milestones piled up.
First broken bone.
First trip to the ER.
First police officer.
First squad car.
It was the worst kind of initiation. This can’t be adulthood, I thought.
Otherwise, we’d all be walking around in a million pieces.
In retrospect, sure, these were choices, but they didn’t feel that way at the time. By the time I was 22, my life had an inevitable quality that made me feel protected; my problems weren’t accidents, but fate. This sense of inevitability kept me from worrying. As bad as things were, I never questioned that I was doing . . . exactly what I was supposed to.
Then, one afternoon, I took a bite of spinach salad and my two front teeth disintegrated. I swallowed a mouthful of grit, then ran my tongue over the broken incisors. It was like licking a handful of broken glass.
I was afraid to look at my reflection but made myself stand in front of the mirror anyway, willing myself to peel back my upper lip. My reflection stared back at me. I had purple rings under my eyes, and my cheeks were decorated with the fine pink lace of broken veins. The spinach salad was the only thing I’d eaten in a while. I pulled down an eyelid and inspected the white film that covered my eye.
Maybe this is how I die, I thought—one piece at a time, until there’s nothing left.
The jagged ends of my teeth pricked the inside of my mouth. I couldn’t look, and I had to look. I had to see what was left. My mouth, all of me, turned to sand.
Every problem has its solution. My teeth could be fixed. I was already an expert at hiding all the things that were wrong with me. Most of the people I interacted with on a daily basis had no idea what I was up to. My pockets had pockets.
I cut compartments into my books, crafting every small place. I’d carefully reconstructed my makeup compacts to hide my kit, making sure there was enough space in each Clinique blush case for a tiny baggie of white and crystal, a straw, a razor blade. I had two phones, two sets of clothes, wigs to wear when I got paranoid. I was the perfect double agent in my own life.
And that was all well and good until my teeth (and every other part of me) started to unravel.
I fought to keep myself together, but it was no good. I wasn’t "high functioning" any more, if I ever had been. I woke up sick from swallowing my own blood. I rarely drank in the morning because I was never fully sober, my hangovers surfacing only briefly in the early evening around happy hour. Until my body started shutting down, I didn’t think there was a problem. I was so good at keeping secrets even from myself.
And memory is funny like that, too, a liquid that takes the shape of whatever story I pour it into.
What I couldn’t predict, despite my willingness to keep drinking and using at a rate that dismantled my body, was that I’d end up getting sober.
Walking into my first AA meeting in 2009, I couldn’t stop myself from tracing my tongue over my reconstructed teeth. I looked normal on the outside, or close enough, and I knew that if I said and did the right things I would be able to pass as someone who had her life together.
I sat in a circle of people who, like me, had done things they couldn't take back.
“Nobody gets here on a winning streak,” someone told me. I was tired of trying to look good. And, although I could hide my broken smile, swollen liver, and dull eyes—the veins shrunk by dehydration, taste buds bloody from chemical drip—I couldn't pretend that I hadn't gone to an AA meeting.
AA meetings were for alcoholics. I couldn't pretend that I hadn't, for a moment, felt a sense of ease in the company of strangers. On my way home, I realized that I felt safe, and the sensation was unnerving and different. Why didn't I have a word for this feeling before? For once, I sat with other people without feeling like I was going to break apart.
“I'm afraid,” I said the first time I was called on. Those two words were the beginning of my transformation from a frightened, sick junkie to a healthy person, someone who was going to live. My mind knitted itself back together as my body healed. I learned to have faith that getting better was inevitable.
All I had to do was stay out of the way. “Quit pulling out your stitches,” they told me, and I sat on my hands while time did its work.
The first thing I noticed was that my nightmares went away. Instead of replaying the Top 10 Worst Moments over and over, I started to dream. I woke up feeling rested; I didn’t have to bleach bloodstains out of my pillowcases. My chronic sniffles (my “allergies”) started to subside—along with the nosebleeds brought on by snorting a small snowdrift of cocaine.
My chest pains diminished, along with the sick, sodden feeling of my liver crowding my ribs. The mysterious bruises on my arms and legs faded, since I didn’t stumble into tables and sharp edges any more. My skin healed, too, and warmed. Instead of broken veins, roses bloomed in my cheeks. The whites of my eyes were . . . well, white.
It all happened slowly, as I put more days between myself and my last bender. I slept, started eating actual meals, put on enough weight that jeans from the Gap fit me. I threw away my kit, and one by one, I gave up my secrets. I closed up my hiding places and sealed my trap doors. I got a job at Starbucks and learned how to talk to people again, how to be helpful, how to show up on time and follow the rules.
I got a gym membership. I got a bank account. I went on dates. I played Scrabble. I went dancing sometimes, stayed out late, danced sober. I was 27 and felt like I was just waking up. It was like I was a decade younger, learning the things that everyone else my age already knew.
I didn't realize that I was changing until a few years later. I shook hands with someone, smiled without thinking twice.
“You're so strong,” he said. “How'd you get a grip like that?”
I grinned. My teeth were white, even, and solid.
“Practice,” I said.
In almost a decade of sobriety, my body has recovered completely. There are no traces of the drug habit that tore me up, the daily blackout drinking that jellied my organs. My body is a safe place to live. I keep my pockets empty and I've learned to travel light.
My story doesn't change, doesn't need to change.
I smile a lot these days; I have a lot to smile about. I am not a collection of broken pieces, though I am definitely more than I seem. I am whole. I’m grateful to finally live in a house that is built on stone, instead of shifting sand.
About the Author
Claire Rudy Foster is a regular contributor to Transformation is Real. Her critically recognized short fiction appears in various respected journals, including McSweeney’s, Vestal Review, and SmokeLong Quarterly. She has been honored by several small presses, including a nomination for the Pushcart Prize. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing. She is afraid of sharks, zombies and other imaginary monsters. She lives in Portland, Oregon.