Alone in the bathtub, my hands burned when they hit the water, raw from scrubbing with alcohol from containers suspended along the hospital walls. I had pressed the thin metal bar, over and over, obsessive… More
“You’d be at home in San Francisco—there are little earthquakes every day,” someone once said to me. The summer after I called off my wedding and traveled around the world, I was looking to find a place to stay put. San Francisco was a befitting destination, to somehow settle an unsettled girl. Months before I arrived, I dreamed and plotted my life in California.
Like most of my dreams and fantasies, the imagery in my mind was wild and vivid: glowing sunsets over the Pacific, communing with the redwoods, sun showered days on the beach. I would eat seafood on the Pier, bike across the Golden Gate Bridge, and drive into the sunset wearing Jackie O glasses in a convertible I had yet to own. I saw the movies and I had already been watching my future life unfold. I was always able to picture myself in different places, doing fantastic things, able to live the entire experience in my mind, almost so fully, it felt like it happened.
Reality was always something else.
I needed an apartment fast and used Craigslist to land a cheap street-level room in the Mission with metal bars on the windows. The recent random shootings in the hood were somehow canceled out by our proximity to Delores Park and the authentic Mexican food we could buy at the market across the street.
The main tenant (my landlord) collected Social Security Disability and had moved into the spare closet to save rent money. He was in a band and did some sort of job with a van during the day that allowed him to pursue his other passion, which was hoarding. He was always bringing home anything he found abandoned on the street: old comics, bad art, or broken furniture. One time he picked up a bunch of old medical devices from a local hospital. I came home and all five of my roommates were rolling around in wheelchairs or swinging on crutches.
It was supposed to be funny, but it felt like a Stanley Kubrick film.
All of the decorations I purchased for the wedding reception were still stuffed in the trunk of my car. There were silk flowers, bright pink paper lanterns, and enough string lights to fill an entire banquet hall. It was the first time I had my own place to live in over a year, and it had been even longer since I had my own room. I felt like a child tying to replicate my earliest fantasies of what a bedroom should be. I was so grateful for the privacy, the autonomy of space.
I painted the walls hot pink and strung all of the paper lanterns from the ceiling. I draped the lights between the lanterns and around the room and made a fire hazard out of every inch. I bought vintage furniture from the local flea market, built my own vanity and wired big theatrical circle lights and hung a blue feather boa on a coat hook next to my vanity. My room looked like The Moulin Rouge, and it wasn’t an accident.
My next big fantasy was to become a burlesque dancer.
I saw a lot of burlesque in New York, drawn to the neo-burlesque movement, the revival of this spectacle and the indulgence of sensuality and glamour. I loved all of the acts from the garish, bawdy and comedic to the more romantic, vintage cabaret. Even as a child, I loved the fetishism of femininity. I always thought, “I’m so glad I’m a girl, it must be so boring to be a boy,” because clothes and make-up. Dolly Parton has always been one of my greatest role models. So, after my breast implant surgery, it wasn’t like ‘”Oh I can do this now,” but I definitely felt liberated about what my body was, what I could do with it. And maybe fixing this one part gave me the confidence I needed to be seen.
I started taking burlesque classes at studio off a shady street downtown San Francisco. On the first day, we learned how to sexy walk, the art of undressing, the performance of flirting. We picked characters and burlesque names and practiced using different props and costume pieces. There were tricks like how to remove a layer, turn, look over the shoulder with a well-timed wink or how to bend over gracefully to remove a stocking. A few weeks in, we stuck on pasties and learned how to twirl nipple tassels. You can go right, you can go left, you can go center or outerswing, you can alternate. There were so many options.
It was a good day.
The classroom had a full closet of costumes and accessories to play with: boas, heels, bras, corsets, jackets, gloves, and scarves to cover and toss. Every Wednesday, we would all layer up and one by one remove our clothing until we were down to those gold, silver, sequinned, star-shaped, or circle pasties. For weeks, we practiced for our show which was slated for the Elbo Room on Valencia. We each had a single act and then a group performance.
It was around Christmas time so we were doing a Grinch-themed act. I don’t remember all the moves, but I do remember there was a sexy Grinch whipping a bunch of burlesque-clad Who’s-From Whoville into submission to the theme- song, “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch.”
You’re a foul one, Mr. Grinch.
You’re a nasty, wasty skunk.
Your heart is full of unwashed socks
Your soul is full of gunk Mr. Grinch.
Whip. Whip. Whip. Spank. Spank. Spank.
I choreographed my solo performance to David Bowie’s Dancing With Myself, donning a trench coat, carrying an umbrella and enter from a rainy street and into a woman’s boudoir. I shake off then play with the variety of props in the pockets of the trench coat- headphones, handcuffs, gloves, hats, and scarves. The trench coat opens to the right, then the left, I spin around and it falls to the ground. I am down to a corset, then tassels. It was wild and high energy and fun and I practiced it over and over in my Moulin Rouge bedroom until I was out of breath.
A few days before the performance I thought about the scene and our breakout routine—what it would really be like. The Mission bar that smelled like old beer and what if the lights were bad or the audience was just a bunch of gross dudes. Maybe I got scared, or if I was still a bit awkward about doing the nipple tassels in a room full of strangers. Whatever happened or how it turned out, I knew that the reality would never be as good as the fantasy I had created in my own mind. I had successfully done the performance, from my own room, with my boas and hats, beneath the the festooned, repurposed wedding lights.
In my room, where the lights irradiated the room, the costumes more full, and complicated, and dazzling, and the audience swooned. I heard the roar of laughter and cheering. It was 1930’s vaudeville, I was enveloped by lights and starlet adoration, the headlining act, captivating with grace and ease, shedding each layer, awakening the audience to frenzy with my feverish shimmies and shakes. After rounds of erotic tease, my flawless grand finale strip down met an uproarious round of final applause that went on, and on, and, into the night…
In the end, I stayed home, I had already completed the perfect burlesque show, inside my own head.
Mothers are archetypes in lore and mythology for good reason. It’s not just the power to give birth that sets them on an imagined pedestal; it’s the array of supporting qualities—edgeless compassion, unwavering kindness, the glorified selflessness. The role of mother was both captivating and terrifying, because it simply wasn’t me. What metamorphosis would I have to endure to incarnate as this particular kind of woman?
Even when I didn’t want children, it was hard not to perceive motherhood as the pinnacle of feminine existence. Becoming a mother seemed like a necessary rite of passage, a way to come into the world, as evolved, directed, at the very least prepared. If I was a mother, I would carry more practical items in my purse than just a pair of handcuffs or a rotten piece of fruit. Mothers carried tissues and crackers and Band-Aids and other things that were actually intended to nurture other people. Such motivations had always eluded me.
Mothers had all of these qualities, and they were stable and reliable in a way that I wasn’t. Something must have made them this way, I believed.
It must be in the baby.
You make a baby and get to be someone else. All it takes is nine months, and you transform, as though these hormones, this baby and the womb, were a kind of cocoon to envelop the woman who would evolve, change, and become—mother. So, when I decided to get pregnant, I wasn’t just giving birth to a baby– I was giving birth to a new me.
Of course, I wanted the baby and understood the sacrifices, but I wholeheartedly believed in the prospect of this transformation. I held a serious conviction, that once I became a mother, I would be different. I would be selfless, and loving and kind. I wouldn’t have the urge to drink whiskey until the sun came up or stay out all night with strangers or go to Berghain on a Sunday afternoon. I would get over my depression. I would stop having panic attacks. I wouldn’t need to travel or run. I could stay in one place. I could stop trying to figure out what was wrong with me.
I could be happy. I would be fixed. I would be good.
Pregnancy and its swelling potential filled me with a deep sense of gratitude and purpose. The glow was real. I loved the way people looked at me–men, women, and children alike seemed to smile, awe-filled, seeing me the way I had always wanted to be seen, How selfless I was to be carrying this child, what a sacrifice I had made of my life and my figure. It was almost too easy, as my pregnant body already embodied everything I had wanted to become, everything I believed that I was missing. They saw the goodness in me that I had never been able to see before.
I simply assumed that, once having and holding this baby I already loved so much—I would be better, I would be different. In one of the most important ways, I would be released from my obsession with alcohol. I would be freed from binge drinking, black outs, and other signs that pointed to alcoholism since I was 16. After all, I could never be a drunk mom. Drunk moms were reckless, selfish, and, really, they weren’t even real moms. There was something inherently wrong with them, because how could you do that? Months, weeks, even days before my daughter was born, I remember thinking, “I’m so glad I’ve changed and that I don’t need to drink anymore.”
It was such a comfort to no longer be haunted by the specter of alcoholism.
The actual birth and cold swim shock of new motherhood was everything powerful and amazing, and, also expected, a general existential fuck. I am not going to detail the already well-documented experiences of sleep deprivation, physical pain, or the emotional exhaustion that comes with new motherhood. I’m not even complaining: I always knew it was going to wreck me in certain ways, even if I couldn’t have predicted exactly the myriad ways that it did. I knew that all of this would be part of it. However, my emotional landscape was also clouded by post-partum depression and I was diagnosed with PTSD after a traumatic birth. I didn’t even know that was a thing until my doctor referred me to an osteopath who specialized in trauma recovery for new mothers.
My drinking after her birth started slowly. A glass or two of wine some nights in the first weeks, then gradually more, but my compulsion to drink was increasing by day. I knew exactly what alcohol did for me- it was my escape, from my body, my feelings, from my own mind, even from time, that feeling of being stuck, those long days and nights as a new mother that never seem to end. I started to think about drinking at earlier hours. Home alone with a baby, the reality crossed my mind that no one would notice or care if I had a few. There was one night I told myself I wasn’t going to drink, but I couldn’t stop myself from pushing the stroller into the neighborhood bodega for a bottle of wine. Other nights, I tried to cap it at one glass, but couldn’t stop before finishing the bottle. Even if I had bought, two or three, it was never enough.
Worse than my compulsion to drink, was the feeling that I really needed it at the end of the day. I yearned for my daughter to fall asleep so I could have my time and felt resentful if she woke up again after the bottle was uncorked. I kept a cold distance from her on those nights—even the sounds of her cries were different to me when I was already a few glasses in. They didn’t stir me or move me the same way they did when I was sober; they were simply interruptions, like distant sirens, grating, disconnected, like the sound of someone else’s ambulance.
Then something happened that brought me to my knees.
One night when my daughter was nearly four months old and my husband was working late, I started drinking boxed wine, a leftover from our Christmas party. A few glasses here, a few refills, then a few more, even a few phone calls later, and I blacked out. I don’t remember finishing the wine or going to bed or what happened in those hours, but I know my daughter would have been waking up. The next morning I found my daughter asleep in bed with me. I couldn’t remember bringing her there. I didn’t remember caring for her that night, feeding her, or how I must have stumbled into bed with her by my side. The images of what could have happened filled me with terror.
The next morning, I held my daughter, feeling so ashamed, so scared of what could have happened, what would happen to us if I didn’t do something. And then, I heard a voice so clear, so audible. For the first time in my life, after 20 years of willing it not to be true, I heard the words, “You’re an alcoholic. Get help.”
I had never considered those words: Alcoholic or Help. I had been out of control in so many ways, but for the first time, I knew I was not okay. No amount of managing my drinks, or only drinking on weekends, or even cutting myself off for a while was going to be enough. If I had any control over my drinking, there is no way I would have let myself blackout while taking care of a newborn baby. I knew that motherhood, day after day, year after year, would have only amplified my addiction. It was exactly the antidote I craved to answer the tedium and stress of new parenthood. The increased anxiety and depression were mounting everyday. My restless mind had become unbearable. I saw exactly where I was headed and I knew I needed help.
After nearly 18 months of sobriety, I finally understand that motherhood couldn’t fix me. Nothing could have. For so long I had been looking for that thing that would make me feel better, that thing that would make me feel like I was enough. For me it had always been about creating potential, with degrees and jobs and boyfriends and new cities, and travel destinations, and drugs, and booze, and like that children’s book, the Hungry Caterpillar, I had filled myself with so many things, consumed so much, sought out so many ways to be.
And, none of it worked.
I love this metaphor though, the caterpillar that continues to eat and eat, consumes so much, and then must stop, and be still. It must simply be. I am there now, cocooned, warm and safe, learning to be present. And sometimes, in the stillness, I am cramped by old memories, or regrets, pains that I do not want to remember. I am in my cocoon, with all of it, all of me, all of who I was and who I will become. There is still so much potential, so much beauty to be seen. Naturally, there is evolution, and change in this phase, this state of motherhood, but not the way I imagined. Motherhood forced me to see my weaknesses, my deepest fears and pains, the reality of me.
It taught me to love myself, so that I am truly able to love.
Ted wore square hipster glasses and slicked back his thinning hair. We met when I was 23 and he was 30, which seemed really, really old, like Dad old, which is probably why I trusted him more than I should have. The night we met he drunk drove me home from a dive bar, pulled over in front of my apartment and said, “You know I’m just trying to score right?” When he smiled, I saw through the gap between his front teeth. He laughed and shrugged, “What? I’m just being honest.”
He was honest and I liked it. Ted never tried to cover up who he was—he was base and dirty and swore, and drank too much and broke the law. I learned this over the years, but during those few seconds before I gave him my number and got out of his car, I could already see everything. I knew exactly who he was—and I didn’t care. I wanted to be friends.
What Happened? Since You Asked…
I started this blog when I was living out of my car. It was 2010 and I had just called off my wedding and left to travel across the U.S. and around the world with no itinerary or plans to return. I remember those early days with such awe and clarity. It was deep into August and the air was thick with humidity. I always drove with the windows down, the wind making my hair wild. I had traded in all of my wedding jewelry for a handful of gaudy rings full of rhinestones, chunky necklaces, and fake flowers to tuck behind my ears. I was turning 30 in a few months, but I felt younger than I had in over a decade.
I worked online, had no apartment to take care of, no place to be, no relationship to manage. I was a girl gone and it was the first time in my life I remember feeling truly free. During the first months, I lived in a cabin in the Smokey Mountains, traveled through New Orleans with a federal marshal, drove across Costa Rica in an old Jeep, and lived with a house of farmers in Florida. I went to Australia, Bali, then Thailand, and Vietnam between October 2010 and March 2011.
Though I was uncertain of my destinations, I was certain of my choice—to live in pure detachment. I dismissed old notions of time, and thrived on the promise of unending experiences, the idea that I could keep going, move faster and lose myself in each moment. Even in darker periods of fear, loneliness or solitude, spare nights in cheap hotel rooms off the interstate or on foreign lands—I always held onto this idea, the lustful vision of freedom.
But, something wasn’t right.
It wasn’t long before I felt the cracks in my plan. In the first months abroad, I had a difficult time moving from place to place, and even more, person to person. I felt my experiences slipping through my fingers like sand, or time, never really amounting into something I could feel or hold onto. I wanted every moment to mean something, but they didn’t add up that way. I remember cold winter nights in Northern Vietnam, sick in a hotel room alone, when I would have given anything to be held by someone I loved. Still, I never wanted to give up this plan or the journey, and so, I pressed on.
For a little over a month, I stayed in Turkey with other women ex-pats. I felt grounded again, like I gained footing by simply staying put and having these connections that lasted longer than a few nights. All of this time, I did what I had set out to do—I traveled and I wrote. I wrote about the people I had met and how those encounters had changed and shaped me along the way. I still believed if I moved fast enough, and collected enough of these experiences and stories, I would change, and be different, and so, I kept writing, and, I kept moving.
Maybe if I just moved faster…
I had been deep in the caves of Eastern Turkey, bouncing around Greek islands, stuck in an airport in Moscow, drove across Ireland, went camping in Scotland & Northern England and by the time I got to London, one aspect of my life had grown increasingly heavy. I was drinking more and the alcohol was making me distracted, anxious, even depressed. I started to have panic attacks. I needed booze, sometimes to sleep, sometimes to blackout, at least a few times a week. While traveling it was never hard to convince people to drink with me, especially in the UK and Europe. It was also easy to dismiss as part of my lifestyle: “I’m traveling–and, so what?”
Around this time, I met some hitchhikers in Malaga and followed them by ferry to Morocco. When they were gone, I found myself alone in Marrakesh, alone and desperate for a next move. I bought a cheap flight and got a hotel room in Barcelona on a whim and drank a few bottles of wine while I tried to figure out next steps. A woman I had met in Bangkok kindly let me stay in her apartment for the next weeks, even though I was in no state to care for someone else’s things. While she was in Paris for the weekend, I threw a party with some of the locals, trashing her place and feeling so guilty that I left before I even cleaned up the mess.
I never wrote about my alcohol or drug abuse, because I was too scared to appear weak, or vulnerable or like I had a problem. If I was honest, it had been going on long before I started traveling, long before I was even engaged, long before I ever left home for the first time. I had struggled with alcohol since I was 15, but was always looking for that way out, the next move that would fix me. I was prone to impetuous decisions, crying with strangers, and some legitimately dangerous encounters, like when I got breast implants in Bangkok, blacked out drinking snake whiskey on a train with members of the Vietnamese mafia, or casually hanging out with that American dude who was wanted for kidnapping.
I started to fear that maybe I had been wrong about myself, wrong about my desires to live off the grid, wrong about my beliefs that I didn’t need attachments—to people or place. Desperate to find some peace and a home in the world, I decided to return to the U.S. and get some stability in San Francisco. During this time, I wrote about trying to adjust when I came home: moving in with a bartender, getting into multiple car accidents, a foray into burlesque dancing, and another stab at sobriety after a particularly ouch-y bottom.
Getting sober was painful. It always had been. I got sober once when I was 22 and relapsed after a year. Now I was 31 and trying it again, but getting sober always felt like waiting for a train that never showed up. I had anxiety and still took shots of Nyquil to get to sleep. Coming back to the U.S. and trying to stay in one place, I was completely restless. The minutes, hours, and days grew longer and it wasn’t long before I hit my sober-wall. I remember the conversations in my head always went the same, “If being sober hurts this much, then I would rather be drunk.” Within six months I relapsed, which I also wrote about here. At the time, I wouldn’t have called it a relapse: I simply wanted to drink again and that was what I decided to do. It isn’t an accident that I have yet to use the word “alcoholic” because even though all of this, I never believed I was one.
The summer of 2012, I went back to living in my car, spent time driving along the Pacific Coast- up to Portland, along the California coast, Utah, and Arizona. I saw a psychic in Sedona who told me, “Your spirit animal is clear—it’s a horse, but a dark horse, like you have too much freedom.” She said, “I have never seen anything like this before—so much freedom, but so much darkness.” I knew what she meant, but I didn’t know how to fix it. She also said that I would have a decision to make about my life, and that I would know what to do when it arose.
Two weeks later I was offered an apartment in Berlin. I put my car and everything I owned in storage and left, again with no plans. Perhaps it was fate or just the willing of the mind, but a few weeks after landing, I met the man I would marry. Less than two months later, I flew back to the U.S. and sold everything, tied up some loose ends, and prepared to start a new life in Berlin. After years of not living anywhere, I was going to give “staying put” a chance, even though, I had no idea what this meant.
About the blog: I didn’t know what to do with Wayward Betty, whose primary direction and motivation hinged on freedom, and being single and detached, and on the road, always. Not only was I not her anymore, I didn’t want to be her, and there was some shame in that. The day I called off my wedding and took off, I had prided myself on being forever detached, alone, self-sufficient, without people or place. Even though I was well into my thirties, I was somehow ashamed of my need to be loved and my desire to stay put, as though, I couldn’t live up to the heroine I had created in my own mind.
There was also part of me, that wrongly believed, without this backdrop of a foreign and exotic lifestyle, my experiences and ideas weren’t interesting enough to write about. It was my belief that WWB had lost, and so I quit writing the blog and penned The End. During a particularly fractured period of my life, I decided that I hated all of my writing and took WWB offline.
And like that, Wayward Betty disappeared.
Nearly five years later, I am still in Berlin. I got married, had a baby, conceded to my alcoholism and got sober. There were all the therapies (Grinberg Method, acupuncturists, life coaches, spiritual advisers, shrinks), as well as meditation and mindfulness training and 12-stepping, but I would say I have learned the most rewarding and difficult lesson of my life: how to stay put. For me, staying put didn’t just mean, living traditionally or staying for my husband or my child, it meant staying put for me. It meant learning not to run from myself.
After a few years, I feel like I finally have some perspective on what happened while I was “homeless” and traveling. For the last months, I have been wanting to develop a new platform to explore my new life and to share some of my experiences. I was going to start a new blog, as though a new blog title and theme would make me someone different or sever me from my past, but, I know it can’t and that in many ways, it is even more important to recognize where I have been, to see where I am going.
It was a bit devastating to discover that after this time, all of my previous WWB blog content was gone. According to Dreamhost, the content was never backed-up and I was unable to restore Wayward Betty as it existed from 2010-2013. After a weekend of panic and scanning old computers and hard drives, I found this amazing internet archive service called Wayback Machine and was able to restore the majority of the content, though, sadly, not all of it. Also, gone for good were also the reader comments and interactions between 2011-2013. It was definitely a learning lesson for me about learning to SAVE CONTENT, but more about my own fears, the creative process, and learning to let go of earlier versions of myself, as well as prior artistic works we must accept as imperfect.
This is the short version. If you used to read my blog, I invite you to read me again. I will post more about my recovery, living abroad, my practices in meditation, travel, mindfulness and motherhood, and everything else in life that is still interesting to me—as always, love, people, the world.
I know I have changed, but so much has. And, don’t we all. In the end, that is the good stuff.
The crimes that would be perpetrated against me were clear. The kidnappers would ascend to the second floor of our suburban home, slice past the screen, pry open the window and find me, the victim, lying innocently in my bed. There would be two men: one fat, and one skinny; one stupid one smart. They would tell me not to scream, that they wouldn’t hurt me so long as I kept quiet, then they would wrap me in a blanket, toss me over a shoulder, and whisk me into the night.
In January of 2002, while George Bush II was alleging Iraq’s stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and drumming up reasons to spearhead a war, I was living in Boston with five guys who were at various stages of obtaining adanced degrees from Harvard. Every morning, I ate breakfast with my housemates: a French physicist, a German professor, a Japanese language student, and a South African diplomat-in-training.
The men came from all over the world, and each had a very particular breakfast routine. The German would arrange his jams, butters, and honeys in a row, meticulously spreading a precise dollop before each bite. He also fit the stereotype of the neurotic, scrupulous German (he used to divide rent and bills to a third decimal and then give us a break by allowing us to round to the nearest quarter).
My purse is always a mess. No matter how many times I clean it, my purse continues to attract and accumulate the inexplicable. It’s like a black hole of weird, random crap. In the past, I have recovered a pile of poker chips, a rotten pear, a German man’s credit card, five pairs of sunglasses (at the same time), handcuffs, a small shell collection, a large pocket knife (not mine), a bra (okay, mine), a chewed piece of gum wrapped in a $5 bill, a mixed tape from 1998, and so many more knickknacks and oddities that I’m too embarrassed to admit. Continue reading “My Purse is a Black Hole”