Last year on October 8th I celebrated six months of sobriety by myself on the floor next to my bed feeling as if I were a wounded animal who wanted to be left alone to die. There was no one in my life who could possibly comprehend how symbolic a victory it was for me, albeit it one fraught with tears and sobbing so violent that at one point I thought my body would split in two. The grief submerged me in tidal waves of pain. For a few hours I found it hard to breathe.
I had isolated myself entirely from the outside world because I didn’t understand what was happening to me. And I was embarrassed. Here, 18 months into this often frenzied and wandering dance with life, I understand that I couldn’t hold anyone’s gaze because everywhere I looked I saw nothing but my own worthlessness. And so I chose loneliness. I couldn’t handle the idea of anyone else knowing just how bad I felt about myself.
I now understand that “what was happening to me” was a physical reconciliation with pain. 22 years of agony I had numbed with alcohol had come alive and transformed itself into an almost alien life form. I often felt like I was being electrocuted for hours at a time. The core of my body absorbed the shock of it all, and it brought me to my knees. I was forced to stare this wild-eyed savage straight in the face, and now I look around and think, “Oh, this. This is just life. All of this is just a physical reaction to psychological pain.”
Sobriety was not some mystery I had to solve. It was simply looking at all my wounds and learning how to live with them.
I need to express gratitude today for the one sober friend who helped me understand this non-mystery, she who laughed and cried with me on Saturday. I’ve never met her in person — she lives just outside Atlanta, Georgia with her young children near the site of a Mormon temple where I used to travel with the youth group at church to perform baptisms for the dead (yes, that is a real thing and it might explain the Mormon fascination with Halloween) — and here I will refer to her as Hanky Plankton, the name she signed to an anonymous note in response to what I was writing during those first few months of being sober. And I will never forget the metaphor she gifted me:
Early sobriety resembles living life as a clam without its shell.
Shame for an alcoholic is a language in which we converse with expertise, and the fact that I got sober the year my older kid became a senior in high school was its own blessing and curse. I have always been present for my kids and, good lord, you can say what you want about how I should not be dragging either of them into a post about their alcoholic mother, but there is no coincidence that I got to witness my child prepare herself for college with this much clarity. And I am going to give myself credit for having raised a woman who more than anything else possesses a ferocity for life so unparalleled that her grandmother, The Avon World Sales Leader, started taking notes when she saw the ultrasound.
Hanky Plankton loved me enough to help me forgive myself for all the parts of motherhood that began to haunt me after I took that last swig from a bottle.
Leta Elise is my wondrous green-eyed first born whose birth bore the hallmark of every cascading trauma a woman can experience, minus the emergency c-section. The nurses lay her on my chest after they freed her from the umbilical cord that had wrapped itself around her neck three times, and her right arm immediately reached for my neck when our bodies met. And so I forgave her for the three hours I had spent trying to push her into this world when she had decided in utero that everyone in that delivery room needed to wait until her desired time of arrival.
That was the first indication that her life would be lived on her own terms and no one else’s.
I famously had this song on repeat on the drive to LDS Hospital to give birth, and it’s peculiar hum became a bridge that I would return to often during those first few months when I was trying to square my life before I knew her to the life now defined by being in love with her.
Stars – “Elevator Love Letter”
Leta is of course named after my mother’s sister who died in infancy, but I don’t think I have ever revealed that I plucked her middle name from one of my favorite songs by The Cure. And I can barely watch this video, I can barely type these words. Because one of Leta’s greatest talents is the way in which she views the world. Her photography resembles 8 mm film footage. She sees heritage in the mundane, value in the slightest change of hue. She extracts light from every shape and shadow.
The Cure – “A Letter To Elise”
“Oh, I just take as much as you can throw.”
We used to read books together before bed, and I would sing that one line to her every night while stroking the hair away from her eyes.
Three years before she was born I was sitting across a table from her father at Canter’s Deli on Beverly Blvd. in Los Angeles and thought, “I want my children to inherit this man’s eyes.” Of the many ways she resembles her father, it is the color and the shape of her eyes that bear the hallmark gene of an Armstrong most.
Coldplay – “Green Eyes” (Live in San Diego, 2002)
Leta could not stand the feeling of grass or sand on the bottoms of her feet — she famously refused to walk on the beach during a week-long vacation we took to Florida when she was four years old — and Jon and I had her undergo testing with a specialist here in Salt Lake City to determine if this behavior in conjunction with her legendary stubborn nature should be cause for concern. We also needed to know if it was feasible for a child to subsist on a fad diet of dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets bought in bulk and microwaved into oblivion.
Leta endured over 10 hours of testing over the course two days, and when the verdict was in that doctor was roaring with laughter so uncontrollable that Jon looked at him and said, “Please tell us that you have an explanation. Please tell us you can diagnose this, because if you don’t then I am going to walk to the nearest bar and drink a fifth of bourbon myself.”
That made the doctor laugh even harder. “Dear sir,” he said. “You might need to order two or three bottles of that bourbon because not only is there nothing wrong with your daughter, but she’s also the most independent kid I have ever tested. The only thing wrong with her is that she knows exactly what she wants and when she wants it. Is it difficult to raise a child like this? Sure, but I imagine it’s not boring!”
He imagined it wasn’t boring. Just sit with that for a second.
When I was a kid my friends and I would often tease each other by licking two fingers and sticking them in each other’s ears without warning. Turns out I learned that trick so that I could do it to that doctor. Specifically.
Leta hated tags on her shirts and the feeling of grass underneath her feet, and no. It was not dull. What I found in Leta was an at-home, firsthand lesson in understanding that a dull life is not a life worth living. Leta was born being the firm ground upon which she would stand when she decided that she was damn well good and ready to stand. She didn’t walk until she was 18 months old, and she spent a solid two days on the ground before she started soaring.
Shall I brag about my kid for just a moment.
Unlike many kids her age she hunted down her driver license on her own — during quarantine, I might add — and then applied to over a dozen colleges and universities without any assistance whatsoever. Not only did she get into every school she applied to, she also earned a solid scholarship to each one. Which brings me to That Which Blew My Socks Into Smithereens.
This kid has a wit like no other. Her comedic timing has often left me sore on my sides from laughing. Let’s take the afternoon she casually mentioned to me that she had been honored as the funniest person in her graduating class. And when I say “casually” I cannot do justice to her eye movements, her tone, the precision with which she can deliver a line.
Her class had “nominated” her class clown, and I asked when she would find out if she had won this designation. She did a double take, dropped the spoon with which she was feeding herself a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios, and blinked several hundred times. “Class clown” it turns out was the jargon being thrown around for “Funniest Person in Class” and “nominated” meant, according to her deadpan delivery, “Enough people know who I am and they wrote down my name.”
My seventeen blinks echoed in her two dozen blinks. She slowly repeated herself as if I didn’t speak English, “THEY. WROTE. DOWN. MY. NAME.”
Just for the sake of comparison, there were 1,500 kids in Leta’s graduating class. She smiled with cereal in her cheeks and mumbled, “I know it’s not Most Likely to Succeed, but—“
“But, nuh-uh,” I interrupted her. My graduating class was smaller than a McDonald’d parking lot full of bros in trucks, and my peers had to choose from a list of five people. I won that designation, but no one wrote down my name.
Not even a month earlier we were sitting at the dinner table when Marlo asked why there was a dude walking around the house like the Unabomber. I told her that he was an appraiser and we were trying to determine the value of the house for reasons not concerning her. She furrowed her brow and said, “A praiser?”
Without missing a beat Leta raised her right arm and pointed straight at the ceiling.
“An appraiser, Marlo, is the person who comes around to all the homes in Utah and determines who is going to be baptized next. And, guess what. Today? Today he chose you!”
And Marlo believed her.
I am still underneath our dining table trying to regain consciousness after choking on a truffle-filled ravioli.
Where do I even begin when discussing Leta and her love of music? There is no end, there is no middle. She sends me music recommendations that make the Spotify algorithm cower in shame. People of Earth, behold: I gave birth to the funniest kid whose taste in music makes me bow down in reverence. Last year after I endured a particularly bad week, she sent me this song and painted an acrylic landscape around one line from the lyrics. How am I even typing these words?
Deep Sea Diver – “Shattering the Hourglass”
Leta has never suffered from indecision and is the most guileless person who ever lived. She cannot abide gossip of any kind, does not want to hear an unkind word about anyone, and will change the topic of conversation if she thinks someone is about to discredit another person in any way. Do not ever attempt to pull up a chair beside this woman to spill some tea. Because she will dump that tea on your head if she gets a single whiff of your intention.
She would then, of course, make sure that the tea had not burned you in any way and help you clean up the mess you so clearly caused and deserved.
Also, she can dance like a motherfucker. The kid who refused to walk on grass or sand for the first four years of her life became the captain of her dance squad in high school, and in the last two years she helped choreograph four dance concerts to a crowd of thousands. She has more rhythm than I do, although I am not far behind — my center of gravity is located about five inches higher than hers and I was born with two left feet, so my learning curve has been a bit more steep. Fitting that I would find this last song to send to her during her first week at a college in Philadelphia given that she studied four years of French in high school just like I did.
Christine and the Queens – “Comme si”
Here at 18 months sober, I salute my 18-year-old frog baby, she who taught me how to love.