What hopes for the future make sense when you know, for sure, that you are dying, and you’re pretty sure you know what you’re going to die from? Does knowing these things relegate you to Make-A-Wish sort of bucket list stuff? Or are deeper dreams possible?
Lydia is an old friend; more honestly, an old acquaintance. She is a singer/songwriter, and a good one. She is a fun-loving, gregarious sort who I’ve always thought carried a soulful sort of charisma. A big personality. Searching. We’re a few decades apart in age, and a few dozen miles apart in geography. We’ve stayed in touch over the past few years we’ve known each other mostly through the miracle of social media. Unlike me, Lydia is an avid poster, a self-described “open book.” Unlike many serial blurters on Facebook, her posts are actually pretty interesting.
In 2014, at age 28, Lydia was diagnosed with stage III ovarian cancer. After radical surgery and years of chemotherapy, her condition is relatively stable. She is not, however, cured.
They give me a treatment, it keeps it at bay for as long as it can, and when it stops working, they give me another treatment…. I don’t like to think of myself as morbid, so much as realistic, which is that eventually it’s gonna get me. Eventually this is what I’m going to die of…
So there’s that.
At such a juncture, you might imagine a few different types of response. Despair? A rush to achieve stuff? Hedonistic free for all? The abyss? Lydia went through the proverbial five stages, and got some bucket list stuff out of the way: the Grand Canyon, a hot air balloon, etc. Then she went to work on some sands of time items: an album of her music, and a book, a memoir. Now, she weaves her days around her continuing journey of self-discovery, which is intense and, to me, breathtakingly courageous. More on that later.
After many false starts trying to schedule, Lydia and I finally sat down together back in June, her mom in attendance. Mom, her best friend, mostly sat silent, and did not seem to inhibit her daughter one iota. Lydia, obviously, will never have kids of her own. She says she never wanted them anyway, which I believe. Before mortality struck in its undeniable way, she was not emotionally up for that. Irony alert: now, does intense awareness of maturity bring with it a perspective and maturity that might have stoked an urge to settle down and make little Lydias? Snag… Life’s funny that way, isn’t it?
The album, if she can organize it, would be welcome. She is a beautiful singer and pianist, and a thoughtful and melodious writer. The devil is in the organizational details of trying to reconcile her band with the demands of her own life. Lydia is, after all, sick. That one fact tends to dominate. “It was our very first day to start officially recording the album, and I went to the hospital instead…”
Everybody else also has jobs and school and all this stuff, and I have appointments, like all of the time. I have all sorts of different doctors, which is great because they all have a different purpose, and they all deal with particular facets of my body and my life and everything, so that’s great, but also… you know, its like can you do this day? No? Can you do that day? No? Everybody just has a problem with commitment. Some days I just don’t feel well. That’s the worst ‘cause everybody’s free, but I just don’t feel well.
In the movies, it might go differently. Girl gets sick. Band rallies. Album gets made, including bedside sessions in hospital. Girl becomes star, perhaps posthumously?
In real life, well, life goes on, there are practical matters to attend to, and we all got to eat... But I really want to hear that fucking album, you know?!?
Then, there is the book:
I’m writing it in chapters of eras, and these eras break down into other eras. I have my childhood, of course, I have my adolescence, and then I have the four big loves of my life. And then I have the past few years, which have been the most significant in my life.
And this is where our story gets really interesting. Why, Lydia, have the last few years been so significant?
They’ve been the most messy, the most complicated, the most tragic, the most beautiful… there was a love triangle, there was a lot of ugly things that I did, and a lot of horrible things that happened to me, my illness included… losing the ability to have children — losing that choice. Even though I didn’t want them, it still hurt to not be able to have that choice anymore. That was a really big one. The love triangle. That was a big one. I hurt a lot of people, and I hurt myself a lot.
I said she was a searcher. Lydia lives, Lydia discovers. What does Lydia discover? That she is not, yet, the person she believes she should be. That her choices as to how her life is to play out have become much more limited, and that she wants to make the very best of what she has. That she wants to make amends, with herself and with others that she has hurt.
And, she discovers that she is an alcoholic. In the classic progression of such things, she has always drank (first raiding her grandmother’s liquor cabinet). She found courage in a bottle, drank more and more as her pain intensified and she needed to self-medicate, ended up at times drinking "because its Tuesday," and only came face to face with the reality of her helplessness when her life finally spun irrevocably out of control. In the wake of the “PTSD” of her illness, surgery, and treatments, and her pain and anger over a close friend’s terminal illness, Lydia became romantically entangled with a “severe paranoid schizophrenic.” It all came crashing down, and she became an angry, uncontrolled and uncontrollable drunk.
By that point, when I was with him, I was falling down that rabbit hole with him. I was like I don’t give a fuck. There was this video I posted on Facebook of me smashing glass and bottles into a garbage can, and just being like “fuck everybody!”
I started day drinking. I was bringing roadies with me. I brang a roadie to the Duchess County Fair… to a family event… it was ridiculous, ridiculously out of control.
The seemingly unalterable fact of addiction is that in order to find the motivation to sober up, you must first hit bottom. Bottom can come in infinite forms. Lydia is by nature a people person. She forms deep, intense relationships. So it makes sense that her bottom came in the form of three slap-in-the-face moments, brought on by three different people who she loves and depends on.
Alcoholics are generally used to hearing rants, and skilled at deflecting and rationalizing. But this tirade, from Lydia’s best friend, had a kicker:
“Lydia, you’re day drinking, blah blah blah,” the same old rant that she was always giving me, but then, she said, you know, "I honestly think at this point you’re going to die from alcohol instead of cancer like you’re supposed to.”
Ouch! “Like you’re supposed to...!“ I’ll let that sink in a bit…
“Slap number two” came courtesy of her sister, telling her she hated the person she’d become. Slap number three was her mom prepping her for a visit from her brother, who had at that point lived in England, for the previous three years.
My brother, like I said, was coming over from England for my sister’s wedding, and he and his wife were going to stay with us (I live with my mom), and she said, you know, maybe your doctor could prescribe you some sort of sedative kind of thing or something for anxiety, because you can’t drink like this while your brother’s here. He will be so upset to see you like this.
So round about, and yet, so direct. Mom couldn’t bring herself to tell Lydia how much her drinking hurt her, but she could, impactfully, project her feelings onto her brother. Or, Mom realized that citing the beloved, prodigal brother would have maximum impact, and went for the jugular. Either way: “That one really got me…”
And the rest -- hackneyed cliché alert -- is history.
So that was it. My brother came over, and that was day one of being sober. And I hadn’t seen or really spoken with him on three years, and like I said, they were the three most important years of my life, so we had a lot of catching up to do. So that first day, after they got over their jet lag, I sat with them for about three hours while I told them the past three years of my life, including “Hey, this is my day one of sobriety!” My brother was like, all right, I’ll get rid of that bottle of rum I brought you.
Now, it’s been about a year, and she still misses drinking. Some of Lydia’s friends still drink. She misses the social lubrication (“letting my id shine through). She misses the shot of courage before she steps on stage. She’s had dreams where she could taste the whiskey. The relief when she awoke and found she had not actually been drinking! Anyone who’s ever quit anything (smoking’s a big one) can relate to that.
Before we move on, it is interesting and maybe instructive to note how Lydia goes about staying sober. AA is not her thing, “too religious” for her. But maybe there are other ways to skin this cat. Lydia, being a millennial and all, has come up with a thoroughly modern method for keeping her sobriety goal front and center in her life.
My way has been counting the months on Facebook. It’s that simple. I have such a community on Facebook that if I put it out there, oh God, I got to stick by it… If you put it out there it’s real. It’s true, you know? So that’s been working for me. It makes me proud of myself. It’s like, I wouldn’t give up this ten months for anything, not for one drink. That’s crazy, why would I do that?
Why not? Why is this not potentially at least as good at, maybe better than AA? It is constant, continuous accountability. It is everyone she knows in the world, probably, many of whom are in her boat and can identify, and many who just want to see her succeed. The feedback is copious and near instantaneous. It’s all there in writing (which Lydia loves to do and does beautifully), for posterity. It is in her face as well as in others’. It requires no less commitment, no less dedication than going to regular meetings would, except that it can be done interstitially, in time slices that work for her and around her schedule. There really may be something to this… We know AA does not work for everyone, so please tell me what is wrong with finding one’s own path? In any case, it seems to be working.
Come to think of it, there must be vibrant online communities around addiction support, on Facebook and elsewhere. Got to sic the Google on that…
Now to the heart of the Soul Project/interview story: the hopes, the dreams, the progression over time of same. When she was a little girl, all Lydia wanted was to become a rock star. What does Lydia hope for now? We’ll start with context. Where was she just a few years ago, when we first met?
It seems like a million lifetimes ago, and, God… the difference between then and now was insane. What did I want then? I wanted attention? That’s really it. Its almost embarrassing to talk about, like I’m turning red right now, it’s embarrassing to talk about, because, I mean, I’ve done some ugly things the past few years, I’m not gonna lie… Back then I was hooking up with married guys… and dressing provocatively… and writing songs just for the attention and the shock value, and not because they were how I was really feeling. They weren’t how I was really feeling…you know?
So Lydia now strives for something deeper, for that simplest, and most challenging, of all wishes: to discover her own inner truth, and to live as close to that as she can.
I think that in the past few years, I might have done some hurtful things, but I don’t think I am a hurtful person. I don’t think I was a bad person, and I think that’s why I’m so willing to put all that out there in the book.
The book, then, serves both purposes. Through writing, she learns who she is. Through publishing, she reveals herself, and identifies herself, for better or worse, with the truths she has discovered.
I feel all the feelings; relive everything as I’m writing it. So I relive all the ugly, I’m telling you, I’m completely truthful. I’m completely honest about everybody including myself, and that’s hard. I think its going to be an interesting conversation piece, because some people — a few people, like my mom and my best friend, will think: “Well, okay, I sort of figured that.” And there will be some people who will still somehow think I’m a hero and an inspiration and a saint and all that stuff that they do, because you know she was so honest, she’s such an inspiration and all that stuff. And there’s gonna be some people who think, like, wow, she is not who I thought she was, she is such a bitch! Maybe I’ll just kind of throw it out there and then kick the bucket, so I won’t be around for the aftermath… (laughs)
In her own telling, Lydia has achieved a kind of equanimity that so many of us admire and strive for. She has come to accept who she is, the good, the bad and the ugly, and has accepted that everything she has done, proud or shameful, and everything that has happened to her, has led her to be the person she now admires.
So it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that if Lydia could wave a magic wand, she would not cure the cancer that has ravaged her body and that will one day take her life.
A lot of horrible things have happened to me, and yes I have cancer and all this stuff. But I wouldn’t change anything, because everything leads me to today. And in general I like who I’ve become. I just want to find out more about that person.
So there is the album, there is the book. There is the reward (a visit to her bother in London she has promised herself when the album and book are finished). And, there is the voyage of discovery. Lydia craves, more than anything else, "fearlessness." Hopes and dreams are made of such things in a life that has been and will continue to be, in her words, “messy,” “tragic,” "complicated," "beautiful,” and... “expedited.”
Don’t worry, this is not an epilogue. Lydia’s story continues. She is still with us, still thriving, still sober, still very much alive and engaged in her projects and in her search. She has asked me, very patiently and politely, what has taken me so long to get this written and posted. Two months is long, even for me! My excuses are pretty lame: a busy summer, a broken computer, a couple of annoying hand injuries…
The real reason for the delay, of course, is because this is hard. Lydia’s story makes me sad, even though, in its own way, her journey is the opposite of sad. Hard, because I felt pressured to capture Lydia with the depth and honesty the artistry of her own life demands. Hard, because my own relationship with mortality is so complex and, at times, inscrutable.
Lydia’s story is that of a young, vibrant woman, ravaged by cancer, slowly dying, unable to ever have children and in a race against indeterminate time to achieve her life’s goals. Why, then, do I call it “the opposite of sad?”
Wait – hold on… aren’t we all dying? Isn’t life in general a race against inherent finiteness and finality? Newton’s Second Law, death and taxes, right? Hank Williams said it simply and well: “No matter how I struggle and strive, I’ll never get out of this world alive…”
Lydia has had the terrible misfortune, and the incredible good fortune, to come face to face with the certainty of her own mortality. Cancer forced her to confront, whether she wanted to or not, that which we all must sooner or later confront. Better sooner than later, I say! Her very sensible response was to do what we should always all be doing anyway: to strive as best she can towards her earthly goals, and to remake herself into the best -- imperfect -- version of that person she can imagine.
One Last Thing
Lydia inspired me to write and record a song. Due to technical limitations (probably my own), it won't get posted on this blog. I will post a recording, along with a few words of explanation, on the SP/I Facebook page.