Learning To Swim

Every rental we’ve lived in since we left Alabama came with a disappointing bath tub.

Our town home, although small, had a large garden tub that I kept scrubbed clean. A hot bath with Epsom salts is the only thing that relaxes me the way wine does. When I was pregnant with Maverick, and later, Asher, I soaked in that tub almost every night to relax the muscles wrapping around my midsection.  As I floated, belly protruding, I could breathe.

Weightlessness. That’s what I am always searching for.

After we walked away from our mortgage in 2012 like so many other young couples who found themselves trapped in real estate in the market crash, I either drank myself to oblivion or crammed my body into the dingy tub of an overpriced rental home to relax. Sometimes, I did both.

A few days into sobriety, my brain still fogged over from detox, I wondered what would happen if I sank under the murky water and inhaled.

The dense fog has lifted now, and most days, being sober feels like a heavy weight. Drinking was like a weight, too, but this is different. Life is what feels heavy. Alcohol let me block it out but did not provide an escape from my problems. Sobriety opens up the curtains and lets the light in: painful, but promising.

I voluntarily opted to birth my middle child without any pain medication whatsoever. It was an amazing, horrifying, terrible, awesome experience. There were a few points when I was absolutely certain that I was going to die, but I had no choice but to keep going. With the help of my support system, my son and I made it to the other side alive.

It was exhilarating.

That is what it feels like to be in recovery. As terribly uncomfortable as it is, I just have to keep moving forward. Neither stopping nor going backwards is an option for me.

Some days I really wish I hadn’t made the choice to get better. At this particular time in my life, with small kids who have a lot of needs, true recovery can feel like an impossible undertaking. But, just like childbirth, I have to remind myself that I’m not the first woman to do this and I certainly won’t be the last.

Recovery from addiction is painful, but it’s not going to kill me.

My addiction is what will kill me.

Merriam-Webster defines heartbreak as “crushing grief, anguish, or distress.” I define it as something I worked really, really hard for a very long time to avoid. I thought if I moved on fast enough, planned well enough, and accomplished enough, I could somehow escape it. I ran, literally and figuratively; I recoiled from it like someone might turn away from a thing that has the potential to kill you.

I thought it would crush me if I allowed myself to feel it, so I refused to. I masked the pain with a number of relationships, walled myself, off, and became an alcoholic. I met my husband and we built a life, but as much as I love him I never allowed him to truly love me.

We can’t ever truly escape the past. My story will never go away, no matter how many times I try to pretend it didn’t happen. On January 9, 1999, I suffered emotional and physical trauma followed by a heartbreak so profound that I never allowed myself to address it at all. I smashed myself back together like a car wreck survivor might if lost in the woods without access to medical care, and I never healed properly.

Just like a broken arm that never healed correctly, I have to re-break my heart in order to allow it to fully mend. There is never, ever an ideal time for heartache. I procrastinated for 18 years, but now, if I want to remain sober from alcohol, and I do, I have no other choice but to surrender.

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I am learning to swim.

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A Very Sober Halloween

This is the first Halloween that I’ve been sober for as long as I can remember, and I have a lot of feelings about it.

Part of what grieves me about the absence of alcohol in my life is all the fun I used to have while drinking. Clearly, there was lots of bad stuff too, or I’d still be doing it, but when I’m feeling sorry for myself I only remember the good times.

Before Robbie and I had kids, we went to Halloween parties every year, sometimes more than one in a night. We were the people who meandered from party to party — no curfew, no babysitter to worry about, and very few responsibilities to wake up to the next morning.  Because of this, I equate drinking to having very few responsibilities, which isn’t accurate at all, but that’s my way of romanticizing the past. As time went on and our family grew, my sense of responsibility, worry, and fear grew as well. Escaping responsibility and worry was one of the biggest reasons why I drank — and the more I drank, the more I drank, because I’m an alcoholic and my body craves it.

Also? My responsibilities did not go away. At all.

Last year, I was excited about the kid’s costumes — it was the first time in years that I’d planned ahead far enough in advance to avoid making a very last-minute trip to the store — but by that time in my drinking career, I was pretty much a miserable person, wracked with anxiety, sadness, and an overwhelming sense of dread. None of that is evident in the photos, but I remember.

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I carried a cup of wine with me the entire time the kids were trick-or-treating, ducking back into my friend’s house to refill without telling anyone. Today, as I was feeling sorry for myself thinking about all the carefree, happy parents who will be able to enjoy a beer or cocktail tonight, I remembered being drunk last year, after dark, with all three of my kids scattered in different parts of an unfamiliar neighborhood. I didn’t allow myself to consciously feel shame at the time, and it certainly wasn’t problematic enough for me to consider stopping my habit, but today, I let myself go there.

I’m ashamed that I was so deep in addiction that I couldn’t stomach the thought of taking my kids trick-or-treating sober. I’m ashamed that I have missed out on so much of their lives because I was either drunk, or miserable, or both. I’m ashamed that I wasn’t able to fully appreciate my life because I was too busy running from it.

Thankfully, this year will be different. Although we are all far from perfect, I no longer feel like running away. I’m learning how to embrace the good and the bad, and although it’s really, really hard, it’s better than trying to escape.

For the first time in my adult life, I’m not trying to escape reality, or my emotions, or my fears. How appropriate that this Halloween night, the scariest thing I’ll have to face is myself.

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When Did Authenticity Become Brave?

People keep telling me that I’m brave, but I feel like they’re doing it for the wrong reasons.

They tell me things like “You’re so brave to be living sober,” or, “It’s so brave of you to talk so openly about your problem with alcohol.” For the record, people have been calling me brave ever since I started writing publicly 7 years ago, and back then I was just talking about motherhood. I thought it was weird then, and I think it’s even weirder now.

Since when did living authentically become synonymous with bravery? Are we that out of whack as a society that the simple act of owning one’s shit is considered courageous? I’ll tell you what I think is courageous. Joining the Army.

Walking into a room full of uptight, conservative, Bible-thumping church goers and announcing that you identify as a gay male.

Adoption.

Opting not to pee when there’s a clean restroom available in New Orleans.

Skydiving.

Fostering children over and over again, knowing that you’ll grow attached and feel sad when they leave, but doing it anyway.

Standing up to a person who scares you, even if that person is yourself.

Cloth diapering.

Leaving.

Staying.

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This chick walks away from situations a LOT.

Getting sober is brave. Talking about getting sober is not, at least not for me. It’s part of what keeps me well, and it’s a win-win — I raise awareness, and I keep myself from listening to that little voice that talks to me all day, every day, telling me that I should take up smoking, or that one glass of wine won’t hurt me, or that getting one bottle of Phentermine would knock this extra weight right off and THEN MY LIFE WOULD BE BETTER.

My therapist told me, when I was lamenting to her about how many messages I get from people who seem to think that sobriety is easy for me, as if I’m some kind of unicorn who is magically able to abstain from drinking without any effort whatsoever, that I should write about how it actually feels to stay sober for 24 hours at a time. So here goes.

Staying sober is a 24 hour cycle of ups and downs. I enjoy waking up and feeling awake instead of foggy. I appreciate that about sobriety, the clarity. I’m grateful for it, because without it, around 10 a.m. every morning, when that little voice starts telling me things like you should just stop eating, go get some pills to kill your appetite and the gnawing need to do something, anything, to stop the voice sets in, I need clarity in order to remain in control. I call someone and I talk about it. I go to rooms full of people and I talk about it. I write about it.

I have had to tell strangers about how hard it is for me to give my son his ADHD medication without throwing one into my mouth. I’ve admitted the deepest, darkest parts of me that lurk under the surface, the addiction that wants nothing more than to kill me, and I’ve learned that speaking the words into the air takes away their power.

When I say it, the compulsion to do it lessens, just a little. I do this over and over and over again.

After I work through one issue, another wave will come — this time, the voice will tell me, as my kids shout and paint with toothpaste and fight with each other the way that kids do, that I need something to numb myself from wanting to put my hands over my ears and scream. The voice says, What kind of mother can’t handle a little yelling from three children? What kind of parent doesn’t get ahead of the situation and send her kids outside to play, before she comes unhinged? You aren’t good enough. You need to take something so that you will be better.

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Eating breakfast with the cat.

The self-loathing and the shame creeps in, telling me that I’m deficient, my kids deserve better, and I should just drink. Thankfully, we don’t keep alcohol in the house.

There is something about my brain that is different. There’s an undercurrent there — one that I can’t completely eradicate — that actually makes me want to park my butt somewhere with an enormous bottle of something and drink it or snort it until I feel nothingness. I don’t want to die. I just don’t want to feel. That’s what makes me an addict, and it’s actually the opposite of bravery. It’s cowardice, a fear of feeling.

It’s not bravery or luck or some kind of upper crust morality that keeps me sober. Working a program keeps me sober. Talking about recovery is something that I hope more people start doing, because whether you think so or not, A LOT OF PEOPLE YOU KNOW ARE IN RECOVERY OF SOME SORT.

So, yes. Getting help is brave. Talking about getting help is not.

All of us should talk more.

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7 months sober! Photo credit: 4-year-old child.

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That Feeling When You Kind Of Want The Earth To Swallow You Whole

Robbie and I are very open with our kids. Children are smart — even if they don’t know you’re lying now, they’ll figure it out eventually. And then what? They’ll know you lied. They won’t trust you, and why should they? You didn’t earn it.

Our oldest child is especially perceptive. He’s likely the only one out of my three who will remember what it was like when I was still drinking; there were many nights that an issue with him is what drove me directly to the bottle. I know that he noticed, and when I stopped drinking, I told him the truth: I don’t drink anymore. Alcohol is not good for me.

“Oh,” he said. “I know what you have.”

“You do?”

 “Yep. You have … what’s that thing called that [name removed for confidentiality] has?”

“Alcoholism?”

“Yeah! Alcoholism.”

And there it was. A handful of days after I threw out my wine rack, my kid was calling me on my shit.

When my article about addiction was published in a local magazine this summer, he read it. I wasn’t planning to let him, but I had the kids with me when the publisher called to say that there was a package waiting for me at their office. We all went inside, took an elevator to the third floor, and retrieved the envelope full of magazines. I opened it on the ride back down and audibly gasped — I had no idea that I was going to be on the cover, and Maverick was the first to see it.

I’ll never forget how excited he was, shouting “MOM! MOM! THAT’S YOU!” and jumping up and down so hard that the elevator shook. Before I knew what was happening, he had a copy in his hands and refused to give it back.

“HOLD ON, I’M READING,” he yelled from the third row seat of our van. I finally gave up and let him.

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My oldest and my youngest. They’re beautiful.

Last weekend, it occurred to me that I’ve never taken the time to explain to him the difference between an alcoholic who is still drinking and an alcoholic who is in recovery. I pulled him away from the other kids to have a chat. About 5 seconds into our conversation, he interrupted my explanation about what it means to be in recovery.

“Mom! I wish I would have known this before now!”

I got a sinking feeling in my stomach.

He started talking, and as I listened in horror, he told me all about how his teacher had each member of the class stand up and talk about their mother. I knew what was coming, and I was pretty sure I was going to die a little bit inside when I heard the words. I braced myself.

“So when it was my turn, I got up and said — ”

He took a deep breath.

“My mom’s an ALCOHOLIC!”

And he beamed.

He said it with such pride. He really is proud, though. My whole family is, not because I was lying half-naked in a gutter and they had to save me from myself, but because they mostly had no idea how bad it was and I made the decision to get help without being forced to. And sometimes, I’m proud of me too — but on that day, when I found out that my son had announced to his entire 4th grade class “MY MOM’S AN ALCOHOLIC,” I felt like the Earth fell out from under me.

I mean … you know. That sucked.

Most people die laughing when I tell this story, and I understand why — it’s something you might see on a sitcom — but Robbie didn’t laugh. He looked as horrified as I felt, and when I crawled under the covers at 8 p.m. that night and whispered, “I just want to go to sleep,” he smoothed my hair away from my face and told me he loved me.

I would be lying if I told this story and left out the part where I fell into a pretty major depression afterward, like I always do when it hits me like a ton of bricks that I brought alcoholism into my husband’s life and our children’s lives and now we all have to deal with it. I like to think it will make us all better people, but sometimes, I question what affect this will have on my kids. Sometimes, I worry that one or more of them will inherit it from me, or, like a catching disease, someone close to me will die from it.

The truth is that I can’t control what other people think about me or my journey, and I can’t control what my children say to their friends or what those friends will say to their parents. That scares me. When I talk about these issues, I control the conversation and it feels not scary. When MY CHILD TELLS HIS CLASS THAT HIS MOTHER IS AN ALKIE?

That’s scary.

The good news is, I walked through that experience — the shame, the sadness, the guilt, and every other awful feeling one feels when one has this kind of thing happen — and I’ve made it out on the other side.

And I’m still sober.

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Learning To Be Different

I have recently come to grips with the fact that I am a perfectionistic, uptight person who is way too hard on herself and has a very narrow view of what her life is supposed to look like.

I have a feeling that I’m not alone in this.

When something in my life feels out of my control — and there is literally ALWAYS something bothering me that is out of my control — I have to do something about it. I have to take action, even if that action has absolutely zero effect on the situation. I recently said out loud in a room full of strangers that the scariest thing a control freak can do is have three children, but I also believe that having those children is what will keep me from relapsing. If it were just me and Robbie, and no children, who knows how bad things would have gotten. I wouldn’t have three little people watching me, copying my behaviors, and adapting my fucked up coping mechanisms.

I wouldn’t have a good enough reason to get better.

In the past, my coping included cleaning the house while raging at my family about how messy they are, when in fact, they are just normal people. I would drink to make myself stop obsessing over what I could not control. I would put entirely too much makeup on or nitpick myself to death or yell obscenities or unjustly pick fights with people in my life. I felt personally victimized by minor inconveniences. I was not grateful.

***

“It seems like motherhood is a big source of stress for you.”

My therapist shifted in her seat as she waited for me to respond, uncrossing and re-crossing her legs. I wondered if she was starting to get that tingly feeling that happens just before a limb shuts down.

“I would say so, yes,” I said quietly.

***

Four months into sobriety, I am slowly, painfully, learning how to be different.

I’ve started working again, doing freelance work which is mostly me talking about being sober while also being a parent. My latest essay is one I’m very proud of, and you can find it here.

We have the strength we need to make it through today. Tomorrow is not guaranteed, but today, right now, we are okay, and for that I am learning to be very, very grateful.

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@audreyhayworth discovered that it’s really hard to find greeting cards for people in recovery, so she made one for me herself. I am so lucky to have an amazing support system. I still haven’t found the right words to describe all of the people in my life who are making it their business to help me stay sober, but when I do, I’ll let you know.

For now, no words. Just thanks.

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A Beautiful Destination

I’m 100 days sober today.

I’ve reached a point in my recovery that is notorious for relapse, and now that I’m in it, I can understand why. I’m unearthing years worth of emotional hurt that I’ve spent half of my life distracting myself from fully addressing, with no way to numb the pain other than to keep pressing through it.

Recovery isn’t just about not drinking or using. It’s not as simple as that. All of us have reasons why we are driven to drink or shoplift or lie or sleep with total strangers or whatever that thing is that keeps you from feeling that thing that you don’t want to feel.

I would go to almost any length to avoid feeling those things that I don’t want to feel, and now that I’m sober, I’ve been sitting in them for awhile. That’s why I’ve found myself doing things like baking cookies and eating the entire batch (on two separate occasions) and then being angry that I’ve gained weight, or working out like a crazy person because I have anger that I don’t know how to process, or calling a friend and just sitting in silence on the phone because the simple act of calling someone reminds me that I’m not alone.

It tethers me to something real. It reminds me that I have support, and even if the person on the other line doesn’t always know what to say to me because she isn’t an alcoholic, she is saving my life simply by being there.

As difficult as experiencing the hard stuff is, the good stuff makes the bad stuff almost forgettable. Just like childbirth made me feel like I was literally dying right there on the table — rationally, I figured I wasn’t actually going to die, but my body felt like it was shutting down and my soul was floating away — but the joy of seeing that little face made me immediately forget. All I can remember is that childbirth is unpleasant. This makes me hope that one day I’ll recall 100 days sober as unpleasant, but not bad enough to kill me.

Drinking would kill me.

As I keep inching forward, the pain lessens little by little. Every day, a tiny piece of my soul is restored … I think. Sometimes I can’t tell if my soul is healing, or if I’m simply losing my mind, but I do know one thing: I can’t go back.

The terrified part of me wants to say “NEVER MIND, I WAS JUST KIDDING!” and go right back to drinking, but the tiny shred of sane self I have left knows that I could never un-know that I’m an alcoholic and that there are things in my past that drove me to this point. I could never un-know that my coping mechanisms will send me to an early grave unless I retrain myself how to cope differently. I could never un-know the joy and peace I feel in my good sober moments.

They say it gets better. I believe them. I have to.

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The Process of Unlearning

You know how moms always seem to put the needs of their children above their own? No? Then this post probably isn’t for you.

For those of you who are still reading, I have a recurring urinary tract infection because I tend to hold my pee longer than I should, because I am a procrastinator and also because I have a 3-year-old.

I have a 5-year-old and an 8-year-old, too, but children who are three really do not care how badly you have to pee. Children who are three wait until your bladder feels like it may burst and then they break a dish, throw up on the carpet, or run into the street.

By now, I’m a champ at putting my own bodily functions on hold, not because I enjoy it, because I really don’t at all, but because that’s what moms have to do. We put our bodies, needs, and selves aside sometimes in order to keep other human beings alive, and then we resent the hell out of the men in our lives who wander around seemingly oblivious to our reality.

That habit of putting oneself on the back burner is a slippery slope. I used to think that I was pretty good at self-care, but it’s probably no surprise that I really wasn’t. I may be good at hygiene, but I’m terrible at mindfulness, dealing with uncomfortable feelings, doing anything in moderation, and I don’t even want to talk about my health. I haven’t had a pap smear in almost 4 years.

It was gradual, but my slide downhill was steady and unrelenting, and the more stressful life became for me, the farther down I went. Before I could stop the momentum, I was a functioning alcoholic and pill-popper. I don’t know when I crossed the line between normal and abnormal behavior, because to me, it’s all blurry. I was in a perpetual survival mode for years.

Getting sober is a journey in unlearning everything I thought I knew about life. That’s like, seriously daunting. At least once per day, I get into my bed and hide under the covers and wish that I could just go back to how things were. Change is hard and the looming unknown is terrifying to a control freak with anxiety issues, but I’m stubborn, and I am going to do this.

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Today while the kids were in school I watched an entire season of Catastrophe on Amazon. In bed. Without pants.

My whole body is puffy, probably because my liver and kidneys are like, WTF, where are the alcohol and the chemicals that we have grown so fond of?

I have no idea how to do anything, so I just keep doing the same things over and over. The things that I know work, one day at a time.

P.S. Hobbs & Hayworth made an announcement this week. If you’re interested in seeing THAT, here it is. Every time I got uncomfortable, I pet the dog.

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When The Moon Wakes Up

“Is the moon awake?”

“Almost.”

“Is the sun asleep?”

“It’s going to sleep right now … just like you.”

Pepper smiles then, content, smashing the ear of her bunny rabbit lovey into one eyelid while staring at me with the other. I kiss her, whisper goodnight, and leave, walking down the hall to the computer.

As soon as I open the browser and begin working, I hear her socked feet running down the hall. I stop typing. She peeks in.

“Goodnight, Mommy.”

29 evenings ago, just like every other evening of her life before I took my last drink on February 28, I would have been irritated. I told myself that I drank to cope with the stress of motherhood, that I needed the alcohol to power through rough evenings with three kids on my own without losing my cool. But the truth is, I lost my cool all the time. Alcohol didn’t make me a better mother.

It took nearly a month of detox before I gained the clarity necessary to realize that I’ve cheated my children out of having a sober mother for almost 9 years.

I truly believe that it’s possible to drink like a normal person, it’s just that I’m not able to. Alcoholism is deceitful. It tries to tell me that I’m normal — don’t I seem normal? — and that I can train myself to drink in moderation, if I want to. It tells me that I simply need more willpower. I need to be stronger, and then, I would be okay.

I could win.

Thinking about living the rest of my life sober makes me feel all kinds of feelings that probably aren’t normal or appropriate. I imagine I might feel similarly if I developed a dairy allergy and were facing an uncertain future that did not include real butter, but only if I also held a deep conviction that real butter was the only thing tethering me to sanity.

That’s my relationship with alcohol.

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Me and my smallest.

Slowly, as my body heals from years of abuse and my emotions and soul are restored to a normal state, I am realizing that a great deal of the grief I’ve experienced in motherhood was self-inflicted.

Mothers hold the keys to the emotional health of their household. I knew this, which is why I have been trying so damn hard to get it right. I put enormous pressure on myself to parent effectively, to do the right thing, and I kept failing — which made me drink more. And more. And more. The alcohol numbed me and chipped away at me and distorted my perceptions and clouded my judgment.

That’s not what happens to normal drinkers. That’s what happens to people who drink to completely obliterate their sadness.

***

Pepper waits by the door as I stand up and take her by the hand.

“I forgot to say goodnight to you when you said it to me,” she whispered. “So I came to tell you goodnight, Mommy.”

“The moon’s awake now,” I whispered. And we padded down the hall.

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I Don’t Want To Go Back In Time

I cannot tell you how deep I had to dig to keep my emotions in check this summer and how deeply I will fall into a cocktail (or five) when school starts again.

But today, I snapped out of survival mode and realized that I made it. I MADE IT!

My oldest starts 3rd grade tomorrow. “I don’t need you to drive me to school on the first day,” he said. “I can take the bus.” He looked at me and grinned and all the sudden I could see what he’s going to look like when I send him off the college, and I felt momentarily sad.

His little brother is starting Kindergarten at the same elementary school this year, and my long time dream of putting both boys on the school bus and waving goodbye will finally be realized. Can I be honest? I’m not sad, or weepy, or wistful for when they were smaller. I’m proud. I’m elated, actually. I’m happy to have made it to this point in one piece, and I don’t want to go back in time. I want to revel in this.

No one wears diapers anymore.

Everyone talks in coherent sentences.

I’ve taught 3 human beings how to use the toilet and how to stay with me in the store; things can only continue to improve from here.

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Summer, 2016

I see photos of myself from 8 years ago when I first became a mom and I feel a little sorry for that version of me. I don’t want to go back in time and be her again. I don’t want to hold my babies or rock them or see them in their infancy or wish for time to go backwards. I MADE IT, which means I have overcome obstacles, which means I have hope to continue overcoming obstacles, which requires me to continue moving forward.

This summer, I got soaked with water by the boys, who thought it would be funny to spray me after I asked them repeatedly to turn off the water. My kids kept me so busy that I never got around to changing clothes, until hours later, I realized that they were dry again.

This summer, we were lazy. I let them have unlimited screen time and we all ate junk food and laid around the house like total couch potatoes. It was amazing. Now I understand why people make this a full-time thing.

This summer, I didn’t work out. I didn’t weigh myself. I put on the same, falling-apart, ill-fitting bathing suit day after day and got in the pool with my kids. I’m 10 pounds heavier than I was last summer, and caring a lot less about how fat my thighs look.

This summer, I really enjoyed my kids. I did. But now, I’m ready for them to go to school, because I need to shake off the experience of having people with me 24/7 for three straight months, and that can only be done by using expletives and bargain shopping alone. By myself. Without anyone hiding in the clothes racks.

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