Setting My Reality Dial to Normal

I remember listening to this woman share at a meeting.  She said she wanted to be normal, but that she didn’t know what “normal” was, besides a setting on a clothes dryer.  Everyone laughed.  I went home that night and looked at my dryer.  I’ll be damned.  There’s all kinds of settings.  I never noticed that shit before.  High Heat, Damp Dry, Less Dry, Cool Down, Tumble Press, Dry High Heat, and No Heat Fluff.

It didn’t have Normal.  That setting was on the washing machine, not the dryer.  Wow.  Poor chick.  She only knew one thing about normal and it was wrong.

Anyway, she’s dead.  I can’t remember if it was suicide or drinking herself to death. (Like there’s a difference)  Maybe she found out what normal was, and just couldn’t handle it.  Normal can be tough.  Especially when normal is not your preferred M.O.  It wasn’t mine.

For me, normal meant boring, and boring wasn’t something I ever wanted to take the Nestea Plunge into.  Since getting sober eight years ago, I’m still easing myself into it, slowly, like into a bath that’s too hot.  The quads burning, sack hanging in the steam, inch by inch.

It’s been a process.   Every day is a new adventure, a new discovery.  Finding out that there are appropriate settings for your laundry’s particular needs was a real eye-opener.  Paying attention to, and dealing with normal, boring, everyday stuff is still a challenge for me, but before, it was impossible.  So I try to be grateful for even getting a shot at it.  It could be much worse.

For years, my mom had a quote by Mary Jean Irion, magneted to the fridge.  It said, “Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are…Let me not pass you by in quest of some rare perfect tomorrow.  One day I shall dig my nails into the earth, or bury my face in my pillow, or stretch myself taut, or raise my hands to the sky and want, more than all the world, your return…”

Kind of a bummer as inspirational messages go.  Basically, let me be happy about taking out the trash with this painful ingrown toe nail today, because someday, when I’m watching my entire family burn to death, probably because I didn’t clean out the lint trap in the dryer, I’ll long for this moment.

My sister and I were raised under this philosophy.  My mom and dad spent WW2 in Europe, zig-zagging away from falling bombs, so they knew that serious shit does hit the fan.  It has, and as my mom comfortingly assured us, can very easily again.  Not only that, we were taught that if you ever bitch about being bored, something really bad will happen to punish you for being ungrateful.  An ax was always poised and ready to come down on any ingrate moping about in the doldrums.

The apocryphal tale in our family was that one hot summer afternoon back in 1968, my mom and dad were sitting around complaining about being bored.  The phone rang and it was my uncle calling to say he was being sent to Viet Nam.  Nobody was bored anymore.  “God will make you wish you were bored,” we were warned.

The message was clear.  Never be bored…or someone will get sent to Viet Nam.

I did what I could to never be bored.  I made sure to keep things lively.  If it meant burning down a tree house with paint thinner and a bottle rocket, so be it.  When I got older and began to drink, I took creating chaos to a new level.  Mine was a typical fast-track success story, young mischief-maker grows up to be a maniac menace to society.  It was my destiny.  I was a man on a mission.

Not only was I never going to be bored, but nobody around me was going to be either.  Not on my watch.  Scared for their safety maybe, but never ever bored.  Over the years, I saved a lot of people from being sent to fight the Viet Cong.

So while I was saving lives by drinking massive amounts of beer and wreaking havoc, I never experienced what a normal day even looked like.  When I got sober I was at a loss.  What was this thing I was supposed to cherish before the time came to start clawing at the ground while howling in grief?  What did a normal day even look like?

I mean, I had my own version of normal.  Spackling a bullet hole through the living room wall while drinking breakfast kind of normal.  Pushing a piss-soaked mattress off the roof of my car on to some parking lot at night became pretty normal.  By the third time I got robbed at gunpoint by Mexican police, even that started to seem normal.

One guy had me up against a wall while his partner held the gun on me.  I looked at it from the corner of my eye.  It looked like an old .38 revolver.  What cop still carries those?  That was Barney Fife’s gun.  He took out my wallet and pocketed the money.  Okay, it’s just this, I thought.  When I realized that he was just robbing me, and was not going to pat me down, I was relieved.  Elated actually.  Even out six hundred bucks, I was still getting off way easy.  I guess that says something about my lifestyle choices.  They weren’t normal, but the stuff that happened to me because of them, became so.

I took this shakedown in stride.  I even asked him if he could leave me with some cigarette money, which he did.  Good guy.  He gave me back my wallet, with a five, and told me to go back to where I came from.  I thanked him and his partner and said good night.  I crossed back over the border without further incident and was soon drinking myself angry over the business loss, in an cheap El Paso motel room.  Just like I had done the two previous times.  I never learned.  That was also normal.

One important thing I have learned since I’ve stopped drinking is that there’s this thing called a lint trap.  It slides out from the top of the dryer.  After you dry a bunch of clothes, I think every thirty or forty loads, you need to pull it out and clean off the sweater that’s grown on it.  You have to do that, or the whole house could burn down.  So you bet your ass I do it.  (When I don’t forget)  It’s all a part of taking care of business, baby.  It’s part of the new Marius, all sober and shit.

I can do the laundry now and not risk leaving me and my girlfriend homeless.  Pretty cool.

That is some deadly shit I’m handling.

For a while, I was a functional alcoholic, functional being rated on a generous curve afforded by how dysfunctional most alcoholics are.  Our functional is normal people’s totally-out-of-fucking control, but I managed to drink myself even past that point.  I became other drunk’s version of totally-out-of-fucking control.  Every alcoholic knows a fellow one who he thinks he’s better than.  “If I ever get that bad, I’ll quit,” they tell themselves, ” But I’m not there yet.”

Well,  I was that guy.  I was their “yet.”

It’s tough being other people’s warning.  Navigating your way through the world is difficult enough, but having to do it helplessly hammered out of your mind makes it especially tricky.  You’re eating a bowl of cereal accidentally made out of snail pellets, or desperately searching for nail polish to match the paint on your girlfriend’s car, or trying to make a storage shed feel more homey, or having to get out a certain smell from someone’s couch before they wake up and come downstairs.

That’s another blessing I’ve received.  Today I only use Fabreze when I want my clothes to smell extra fresh, and not to kill the odor of some humiliating accident.  Normal day allow me to realize what a treasure it is not to have the crotch of my pants smell like Fabreze and bong water before a job interview.

I don’t know.  I’ve just learned so much in sobriety.

For example, there’s two types of laundry softener.  One is liquid and the other comes in sheets.   The liquid one is used in the washing machine.  The dry sheets are used in the dryer.  The liquid one makes your laundry soft and fresh smelling.   The dry sheets don’t do anything, but nobody wants to admit it.  The problem is that there’s some specific time during the wash cycle that the liquid softener has to be poured in.  It’s a pain in the ass to pay attention to when that exactly is, so I don’t.  Instead, I use the sheets in the dryer that don’t do anything.

Mass-marketed placebo. They do nothing.

I know I still have room for growth.  Overcoming old behavior hasn’t been easy. When I opened my first sober checking account, they wanted a thumbprint for some shit, I don’t know what.  I inked up my thumb and gave it the full side to side roll across the paper like they make you do in booking.  The teller, a young hispanic kid, smiled.

“You don’t have to do it like that for this, bro,” he told me, “You just have to press straight down.”

“Oh, that’s the way I learned to do it.”

He nodded, typed up some more stuff, then handed me some temporary checks.  I felt like I was getting a diploma.  I remember shaking his hand and really thanking him.  I was so honored that he trusted me with all these blank checks.  He wiped off the ink from his hand and wished me luck.

I heard a guy say at a meeting that it was a big moment for him when his checking account didn’t close before the printed checks arrived.  That is a sweet moment. You’ve really arrived.  You’ve officially entered that strange and exotic world of financial responsibility.  He also said it was a big deal when the address on the checks actually matched the address he was living at.  Normal people take way too much for granted.

Initially, I drank for fun and excitement, as an escape from the mundane and ordinary.  I wound up exactly in that place the old buzz-kill Norma Jean Irion was talking about.  In trying to drink myself into that rare perfect tomorrow, I got a lot of hell on earth today, and found myself wishing for some nice, boring, ordinary normal.  That was the real siren song of sobriety for me.  Sure I wanted to feel better, but I was willing to settle for bleh.  Even bleh was better.

Sobriety turned out to be better than bleh.  I have learned that normal can be downright awesome, especially after experiencing many of the alternatives.

Oh, I also learned that if you leave your clothes in the dryer for too long after they’re done, they’ll get all wrinkled, but you can throw in a damp wash cloth into the load and dry them again and it will take out the wrinkles.   I would suggest 20 minutes on high dry heat.  You might still have to iron some things like dress shirts, but that’s normal.

If it could only be that easy.