Always Trying To Work It Out

On Friday afternoon I returned an indigo blue Dodge Ram 1500 Classic to the Alamo Rent A Car just south of St. Louis Lambert International Airport. I wrote about this Hydration Tank last week — you can find it here — and the fact that I have no link to an archive of my writing is a design decision I should not have made during the early days of sobriety. It will be remedied as soon as I come down from the high of driving a car that could tow my entire house from here to St. Louis should all the flights be full next time I need to make the trip.

That idea ranks among a few dozen decisions I made during that time that ranged in severity from idiotic to flat-out disastrous. For instance, should you suddenly find yourself in the position of relinquishing the habit of consuming 750 ml of vodka a day, please consider setting aside all power tools. Resist the urge even to pick up a stick. Or a rock.

I also made the decision to believe people who told me my brain would calm down in a few weeks, maybe a few months, definitely by the end of the year. This is just sobriety, people told me. This is just the brain drying out! I chose to believe them when they said it was just a matter of time. This isn’t something you can rush, they kept reassuring me. And yet, with every passing day, every passing week, every passing month, the constant caterwaul of emotion and shame and feeling, all of the clashing noises and throat-punches of my senses, all of the endlessly berating symphonies of derision, they all gathered fury as they crisscrossed oceans. Time, it turns out, was their biggest weapon.

It never got better with time. In fact, it got so much worse.

I spent last week in Springfield, Illinois, with my best friend Kelly Hurst. She lost her son, Morgan Riley Wickham, on the afternoon of March 2nd. He was the youngest of her four children, her baby boy. Morgan Riley, a beautiful name for a beautiful man whose name you should know and say and honor.

Today would have been his 27th birthday.

I have not lost a child. I have never lost a close family member or a close friend. I would wager that many of us haven’t suffered this kind of loss. But we are all human. We are all water, we are all sun. We are the Carrara of David’s eyes. We are the the bend in his wrist, the strategy, the fear, the intrepid gaze toward Goliath. We are the art as it reveals itself to the artist. We are the eyes of the universe looking back and in and up at itself, its arms reaching endlessly farther away from its origin, its ability to speak and sing and dance.

Stop saying that you can’t imagine. Because you can. It’s just that you won’t. And today, you must.

I have set up a GoFundMe to help Kelly and her family navigate the next few hours and days and months of their lives. No mother should ever have to prepare for the financial impact of a sudden and unexpected event like this that explodes in horror only to continue to unravel and distend in barbaric waves every time she opens her eyes.

I don’t have an About Me page anymore, yet another Early Sober Frog Brain design decision. The reason I bring it up is not only for some context about Kelly, but also for those of you who may have never come across this site before. I’ll probably write one this week, and for the sake of how all of this and its this-ness came to be I’ll mention that I was one of the original writers who helped craft the industry and economy and community of mommy blogging. In fact, I was at its helm and earned all sorts of meaningless press and accolades that I had to trot out whenever I had to do business with people who refused to believe that women and mothers possess any sort of expertise or talent.

They called me Queen of the Mommybloggers, but I was no leader. I did a really terrible job fostering the community and failed the mothers and fathers who had eagerly joined our movement in unspeakable ways. This once trailblazing website turned 21 years old on February 27th, the same year I decided to stop drinking. The irony that I drank away the career I built with this site is a brand of Shakespeare we all love to chew, is it not.

I lost my career. I lost all of my influence and every cent in my bank account. I lost all the stories I had told myself about who I was as a mother, the stories I wanted to believe about myself as a daughter, as a writer, as a person. I lost almost all of my friends.

And then, in the most profound and vile way that a human can experience loss, I lost the will to live.

My brain eventually calmed down, but it was not a matter of time. Those orchestra halls of crashing cymbals and violins tuned to a chord one pitch higher than an entire floor of woodwind instruments being played by hungry five-year-olds, they all shut up. But it wasn’t time that signaled the end of their song.

It wasn’t a drug. It wasn’t a medication. It most certainly was not a 12-step program. I tried diet and exercise. Those didn’t work. Doctors and therapists exacerbated all of it and created more problems. The week I spent in a locked unit at Hunstman Mental Health Institute made it a million times worse.

But the beginning of its end can be traced to the floor of my bathroom where on September 12th, the day after I made what I call a jail break from that hospital, I was giving myself an at-home manicure — use of power tools in early sobriety had caused an infection in my right index finger that lasted over two months and required three rounds of antibiotics to cure. No professional manicurist would come within a hundred yards of my hand.

I was listening to a playlist I had made for the month of June and returned to the first song on that playlist before I applied a base coat of polish.

How many times had I listened to those 90 seconds of sound? How many times had I whispered its words to myself when the will to hold on to the next moment of my life made no sense and had no discernible tempo in the cacophony of percussion in my brain:


“I am going to talk to you this evening on the subject of the spectrum of love. We know that from time to time there arise among human beings people who seem to exude love as naturally as the sun gives out heat. We would like to be like that, and by and large, man’s religions are attempts to cultivate that same power in ordinary people.”

I paused the song that morning and searched for the words on my phone. I knew it was a sample from a small fraction of a lecture, but I had not ever heard of Alan Watts. That morning I found him, or I guess I should say he found me. I soon read everything he had written, books and lectures that led me to more authors and more books all growing out from each other in winding branches. I had no idea that it was all preparing me for The Thing — yes, it is a thing — that would not only calm my brain but would also crack open the entire world.

I began that playlist with this song specifically in tribute to Kelly Hurst. The first time I heard it I could smell her hair on the morning of May 2, 2015 when she woke me with a startle in a hotel room in Scottsdale, Arizona. And no, shut your dirty mind, child. This is not that kind of blog post. Although one could absolutely assume it would be that kind of blog post given the author and the history of her proclivities.

She was headed home from a conference we’d been attending and needed to catch an early shuttle to the airport. Before she left she lifted me up to face her, to look into her eyes so that I would know that she was looking back and in and up at herself, her arms reaching endlessly farther away from her origin to embrace me.

“You are going to need this,” she said as she placed a leather strap in the palm of my hand. The two ends of that strap were held together in the middle by an oval metal token. In all capital letters it read MERCY.

The literary framing of this is that Kelly came calling for me in that song when I added it to my library of music in June 2021. I look at the perfect bend of the spiral of events that ensued the moment I paused that song during that at-home manicure. I had been asking myself every time I had heard it, “What did she mean? What is mercy? What does mercy mean for me?”

The Thing is what I used to piece together the answers to those questions. I had hoped it would calm my brain, and it did so almost overnight. The results had been so effective and so fast that I wrote in my journal, “I have a suspicion that we have been misdiagnosing and prescribing the wrong thing for depression.” Less than a week after that I wrote, “Well, I’ll be damned.”

That spiral led me to her last week. It led me through both small and Grand Canyon-sized moments of mercy, most of them directed at myself. Because I had to figure out how to forgive myself in order to get better. What did she mean. Period, no question mark. What had she always been teaching. Period, no question mark. Who in this world exudes love as naturally as the sun gives out heat. Period, no question mark.

The literary framing of this is that Kelly taught me how to forgive myself so that I could show up for her.

Kelly has always been the leader of our community. She has always been the warrior, the moderator, the mentor, the Queen.

She is our compass, our voice of reason. She has been all of our fists raised in outrage even when we were too scared to raise them ourselves. She has even served as our Hydration Tank. For those of you who know what I’m talking about, I can hear you giggling and you are absolutely correct in assuming that I wrote about that truck in order to give her a new nickname. The vanity plate has already been ordered.

More than anything else she has shown us all mercy and lead us through love, by love, with love, and for love. She has forgiven us when we didn’t know how to forgive ourselves. By and large, all religion is an attempt to cultivate Kelly Hurst in ordinary people.