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I’ve Got Looking Happy Down to a Science

I’ve gotten looking happy down to a science. The key is to make sure the smile touches your eyes. Look up, make eye contact. When they ask, “How are you?” the answer is always the same.

“I’m doing great! How are you?”

Smile. Use the appropriate pitch and volume. Don’t waver. Don’t rub your wrists. There are scars there. Don’t look too long at that case of wine on display at Costco. Don’t think about the past. Don’t. Just don’t.

“Are you feeling like you need a higher level of care?” my IOP case manager asked on my sixth time through the program. Her words were practiced. Measured.

“I hate that question so much,” I said, my gaze fixed to the floor. The patterns on the carpet blurred. “So much.”

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard those words, along with the often repeated, “Are you safe?”

How do I answer that?

No, I’m not safe. I’m never going to be safe. Not really. Not for good.

I’ve gone through all the therapies, all the groups: CBT, DBT, trauma education, life skills. I’ve taken the notes. I spent a year in a 12-step program, working the steps with a sponsor. Listening to the stories.

My past is a cat batting at the edges of my mind. It’s begging my brain, my body, my soul to listen. To take notice. It’s saying, “See me. Nurture me. Love me, for I am a part of your strength—part of your story.”

It’s hard to listen. It hurts. It makes me want to hide away, curled into dark closet spaces, my arms over my head and my eyes squeezed shut to block out all sight and sound. That’s the part I can’t explain: I don’t want to die. I just need to find a way to let the pain out of me.

“Art therapy,” a friend suggested. So I painted, weaving words throughout the splashes of color that took the visions of horror from their endless loop inside my brain and cast them onto paper. It helps. Each painting lessens the pain.

It still hurts.

When I recently said goodbye to two therapists I was working with, they told me about a termination reaction, which is when you revert back to the way you were in the past after losing a therapeutic relationship. Maybe that’s what’s happening, but I don’t think so. I think that goodbye opened up something inside of me that was closed before.

I’m ready now. I’m finally ready. I drowned years of abuse and manipulation in alcohol, my eyes rolling to the back of my head. My roommates wanted to call 911, but we were all underage. They figured I’d sleep it off. Sleep them all off. I did. I’m still here. Some days that feels like luck, and other days it feels like I’m putting off the inevitable.

One of the therapists in the partial hospitalization program I ended up in told me that everyone has those thoughts sometimes. It just depends on what we do with them. I know they’re fleeting. I know that pull I feel toward a bottle of muscle relaxants will go away. And it does. It always does.

I see the smiling, open faces of my children, and I remember why I’m here. Why I’m fighting.

I’m ready now.

I worked on trauma processing before in therapy, but it wasn’t time yet. I talked about it, but it was robotic. It was like those practiced smiles. It didn’t touch my heart. It does now. Now I mean it.

Now I paint pictures of what it felt like, of what I saw and experienced, and I let the tears fall. The tears that were trapped inside my body for years. It’s raw. It’s powerful.

Now I sit down at my piano and play, and the melodies of past and present combine to make something haunting, but beautiful. Mine. My beauty. My story.

Now I start EMDR therapy in the hopes that it can unstick the glue of my past. That I can be free of the heartache associated with those memories.

Now I realize what was missing in those 12-step meetings where everyone shared their history.

My story isn’t about drinking at all. It’s about trauma. That’s why I drank. That’s why I still want to drink sometimes.

But drinking isn’t what my life is about anymore. That’s not my path of healing. My healing is about digging through the drenched, rocky mud of my past and finding something—finding that deepest kernel of myself—and washing it off in the torrent of rain while I turn my face upward toward the drops.

When they ask, “How are you?” my answer is always the same. But even though it’s practiced—even though I don’t mean it in the way they’re asking—it’s the truth. I am okay. I’m working through my life. I’m focusing on myself, really focusing, and it’s working. It’s slow, but it’s working.

I am safe, little by little. I am healing, little by little. I don’t look too long at those cases of wine anymore. They don’t interest me. I don’t rub my wrists. Those scars are years behind me. And I do think about the past. I let it wash over me. I inspect it. I turn it into something beautiful.

And then I move on.

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