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Picking through the weeds

In October, there was the Euro trip. It was two weeks of comfort after a wild ten months here in the Dobson house. I had surgery for a ripped-up rotator cuff at the end of January. Then, I spent four months at home. It was the first time in our 25-year history that Virginia and I spent most of the day, every day with each other. Worries about my future with work and in life haunted me. During all these challenges, I was somehow saved from myself. Europe shined as something like a dream after all that.

The surgery was not exceptional, except that what would have been an hour operation turned into something like three due to the extent of the tears in the shoulder ligaments. The recovery was nightmarish, a full week of getting over general anesthesia and the concomitant side effects of a person poking holes in my body. The incisions were tiny, really. But the bruises that bloomed from the wrangling covered the area from my neck to my elbow.

To say that when I looked in the mirror, I felt sorry for myself is merely understatement. A deep sense of depressive despair descended on me. “How did I get here?” is a question I often ask myself, out there on the route facing the physical challenge of a 14-mile-a-day forced march. But the question had special weight after several months of being stuck in the postal station casing mail all day after I was first injured November 18. Then, when I saw the bruises, I couldn’t help but feel I’d encountered the butt-end of life.

So, I set to work. After the first week, I was feeling better and sat down to write every day on a book I’d been working on for months. Suddenly, I had a sense of purpose. The old writerly creative impulse came back and stayed with me. Within three weeks, I’d gone from 22,000 hard-fought and mostly impotent prose to over 80,000 words of confident, readable words with all the attributes that come with my writing when it really clicks.

Proud as I was of what was coming, other things loomed about and distracted me, keeping me from settling into the life of a writer. Family relations, of which I’m always worried, were changing around me. Virginia and I love each other a great deal. There is nothing either of us wouldn’t do for the other. But being in close proximity after years of only seeing each other on days off and holidays took some getting used to. I had to learn to be less self-centered and self-absorbed. I didn’t do very well at it. The worries and insecurities plagued my well-being. The feeling of being imbalanced and emotionally off center created new kinds of insanity redolent of the era proceeding my last attempt on my life.

My response was to increase the frequency of my trips to AA halls. As I worked through the issues facing me, I began to see more clearly that staying sober was a life-and-death situation for me. The insanity proceeding the first drink was something I needed to avoid, because if it advanced to real psychic pain, it would be the death of me. Faced with a choice between a drink and a rope, I will choose the rope. I can’t go back to that life that still lives so vividly in my mind 33 years after I escaped it. The thought made my heart sink. And as soon as it started on it downward trajectory, I would experience a deep feeling of gratitude that I made it to this time in the day (whenever I thought about it) without reverting to my old ways of thinking and acting. My default settings have me sitting in front of a mindless television program with a bottle of bottom-shelf brandy, a 12-pack, and oblivion.

These meetings and contact with other alcoholics brought me through the difficulties. I remained emotionally balanced and spiritually sound. It’s not that I ever stopped going to meetings. It’s that my response to a difficult period has always been more intensive work with alcoholics. This, I’ve found over time, is something that never fails to keep me from the brink.

When I returned to work in June, the first month was hellish. The weather was hot but not yet breaching the 95-degree mark regularly. It’s amazing how much I lost in four months of sitting at home. I walked every day, but that kind of walking—bumbling around behind Molly the Wunderhund—isn’t marching up and down hills and steep terraces for 14 miles, stopping every 75 or 100 feet, pivoting, and starting again.

Slowly, excruciatingly, my physical ability returned. After those first four weeks, I was back. It was, however, a long summer. I used to fall over in the heat on a regular basis. But the work at the Post Office is more aerobic than other hard labor I’ve done. I’m at the point where I don’t mind the heat. In a way, I thrive in it. As long as I have enough water, I’m good.

After a time, I even started to look forward to getting on the route in the morning. I think I actually began to enjoy my job.

Because I was off work for four months, I lost a week’s vacation. But I had the opportunity to put my other two weeks together. While it wasn’t last-minute, we did not spend a lot of time planning our trip to Europe. Flight tickets were beyond our middle-class abilities, but generous credit-card points essentially paid for one of our two tickets.

As usual, I knew I would really like a break from the Post Office and from my fractious homeland, which seems sinking ever deeper into decline and rot, but I didn’t anticipate or look forward to it. There’s a lot of life I live from one day to the next. Even as our departure date approached, I found myself saying, wow, but there’s still five (four, three, two, one) days to experience. There’s a lot of living to do between now and then. When the day arrived for us to get on a plane, it was almost a surprise.

Then, we were in the air. The Post Office and its petty forms and unenlightened bureaucrats drifted into the distance. The struggles of the previous months wafted out of my mind. You can do a lot of living in two weeks. And that’s exactly what we did. Maybe I was making up for time lost to life’s trials. Maybe (probably) I had kept my head on straight and made it through the weeds without feeling the worst of the insanity. Whatever it was, when we hit Germany, I felt like I was coming home.

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