By Kayleigh Shuler
It was an overcast and particularly taxing morning in May of 2020, dealing with my fear of the unknown and my frustration with the uncontrollable. Going on New York City’s third month of quarantine, things had shifted from “Ah – an opportunity to bake!” to “When will this end?!” rather drastically in the last week or two. I decided to get myself moving by hand-washing one of my favorite sweaters, making myself some tea and going to look at the (still) nearly-barren tree outside my window. It was May, and all of the other trees around were dressed in green, full bloom. My poor tree was adorned with the occasional bud and leaf, but otherwise looked lifeless and tired. I felt rather lifeless, too, most days. It felt like we watched one another everyday and were saying, “You’re still here. I’m still here. We’re still here. That’s all we need to know.”
Her roots live in cement between a parking lot and a sidewalk where drunk men “play” at night. She has been spat, peed, and thrown up upon. The base of her body has been doused in beer. And despite all that… there she stands, day after day, outside my window. During the day she’d let her green baby buds sway in the wind. Her branches are café tables for chatty birds that I loved listening to. She was bare, but she was more than enough for me.
I was in the kitchen when loud sounds from outside brought me into my living room holding a sopping wet sweater, a cup of tea and what felt like the weight of the world. I looked out the window at the tree, and watched as one of her branches came crashing down. My eyes darted to a man with an electric saw standing on a roof behind her. Then, another branch came crashing down. They were disposing of her because she couldn’t bloom like the rest, I suspected. She had been deemed useless; a waste of space in a potential construction zone. I thought how selfish they were… how unfair it was… how empty she was, now. She never had a chance. They had violated her, only to cut her down and leave her to rot. They left her looking even more naked and kind of lop-sided. I figured all of her buds would be dead by morning.
My eyes welled up with tears and my face got hot. My throat and chest constricted and my hands went a little numb. I was so angry. Anger, rage and sadness welled up inside me and came out, finally, as I let myself and the sopping wet sweater and the still hot cup of tea fall to the floor and feel loss, for a while. Of course, I realize now that I was grieving much more than tree branches. Seeing the tree branches fall was just the trigger I needed for release. I let myself feel and cry, and eventually got myself up and trudged through the rest of my day, loathing all of mankind and feeling helpless in a cruel, unjust, and out of control world.
Not a week later, she started blooming green like I had never seen in two years here. She began growing, expanding, getting so full of life, now. I thought something was being taken from her and that she’d be left to rot, but it was actually just what she needed: to trim the dead parts of herself and grow. A couple weeks later, there was a full moon in Capricorn during a Lunar Eclipse. I don’t claim to know much about astrology, but everything I read about it in the days leading up indicated that this was a time of… wait for it: shedding what no longer serves us. Letting go. Leaving or re-evaluating relationships that we have outgrown. Trimming the dead parts of ourselves, so that we can grow and be full of life.
I’m looking at her outside my window, now. She and I look at each other all day long as I work; my desk is purposefully positioned that way. In a place like Brooklyn where the view outside my bedroom window is a wall, a big, beautiful tree outside one of my windows is a luxury not to be underappreciated. It makes me smile to look at her and write about her triumph; I feel proud. She’s beautiful: full of dark, green leaves and even those little bright green things that always fall on the sidewalk. My dad taught me to peel back the edges and stick them on my nose so I would look like a rhinoceros. I still do it all the time. That may have been the only thing my dad taught me to do that I still do (on purpose). I do plenty of the things he didn’t mean to teach me all the time.
My memory of life with my father is not “mostly good with a few bad moments”. I remember it as mostly bad with a few good moments. I can probably count the number of times I felt true love from my father on one hand. That’s okay, though, because I’ve learned not to need it. I’ve learned not to expect, or feel I deserve, a lot from him. He learned that from his father, as well. Many people find ways to avoid the hand life dealt them. For my father, it was music, first and foremost. A master of the art, he could get lost playing, dissecting or writing a piece for hours at a time. When music wouldn’t cut it, however, he turned to something stronger. Eventually, music fell by the wayside, and so did the artist and man he could have been.
One night in early February of 2020, I found myself in a delightful martini bar in the West Village of Manhattan. I had been at work all day and wasn’t feeling ready to go home, quite yet. I had been obsessed with martinis at the time. Reading about them, looking at pictures, comparing reviews and recipes of different variations. I felt, now that I was 25, it was time to sample New York’s finest and try my first real martini.
So, there I sat in the dimly lit and (now unthinkably) packed bar on a weekday evening, sipping my first martini and pretending I enjoyed it. It tasted salty, nutty and like rubbing alcohol. It must have been excellent, just not my thing. I finished it and talked to the bar tender about a different option for my next. He suggested a gimlet, saying that it was lime based and a little sweet, and I was sold. So sold, in fact, that I had four.
I sat there, becoming woozy and soft in my mind, like a massage to my brain. It felt so good, like I was melting into the corner I had tucked myself away in. I was a fly on the wall, people-watching and invisible. I overanalyzed interactions betweens guests, tried to guess what people did for work, created backstories for everyone there. I began writing on my phone and was, honestly, overcome with emotion at the sheer brilliance of my creative genius while intoxicated with all of this lovely gin. I sat there, thinking: This is what he must have felt.
After a while I became bored and lonely, and those are not good things to be when you are highly intoxicated. I went to write again, but the high had left and the low had entered. Writing was no longer an escape from loneliness; it was accentuating it. I looked at what I had written before. It didn’t make sense. It was all just a bunch of fancy words and ideas. No through line, no purpose, no direction. Just spatterings of what felt like creative genius just fifteen minutes ago. I suppose a lot of people would be able to laugh at this, their silly drunken writing. Maybe I could have, too. Except I was bored and lonely and highly intoxicated, so instead, I sat there thinking: This is what he must have felt.
When the thing that gave me creative genius tricked me like that, I felt so embarrassed, because I had deceived myself. In my experience, alcohol taunts what’s already there. It brings the shadows to light but doesn’t make me feel strong enough to face them. So, I’d drink more and a little more “genius” would strike, and then fade. So, I’d drink more and a little more “genius” would strike… etc. The thing that always troubled me with alcohol was that it seemed to have no positive lasting effects, only bad ones.
The morning after the four gimlets, I had a rehearsal for a very exciting project, for which I was hungover. Getting up that morning was laborious. Being at rehearsal would have been great, except, I wasn’t fully there. I was tending to a hangover and, worse than that, my guilt. I felt so guilty for arriving in this professional environment feeling sick and unworthy. I was not up to the task. I left that day feeling ashamed and tired.
I began to think about my relationship with alcohol in a more critical way. How do I feel before drinking alcohol? Impatient, excited and fiery. How do I feel while drinking alcohol? Subdued, relaxed, and happy, at first. Second drink I’m feeling good, buckling in, and I start “saying it like it is”. Then around the third drink, I begin second guessing everything I say, and I start getting emotional. If I make it to the fourth, I become very analytical, and dark thoughts and reasons why I shouldn’t feel good start filling my brain. My brain always, inevitably, leads me to something that doesn’t feel good, because I think that the most hurt parts of me still believe I don’t deserve to be happy. Truly happy with no exceptions.
When I realized that alcohol was a gatekeeper to dark thoughts and inhibited my ability to defend myself from them, I began to question whether or not this could be a long term relationship for me. I always felt like I couldn’t go to battle with the dark thoughts; I’d just wave my white flag and have another drink.
When I say “go to battle”, I don’t mean telling myself things like, “Go away bad thoughts! Stop! Stop!”. That wouldn’t help because I wouldn’t be addressing it, just commanding it. Dark thoughts and, especially, trauma don’t work like that. Dark thoughts need to be told that they are not allowed in the driver’s seat and why; they stem from our childhood and are as reckless, naive and irrational as the children we were when we first formed them. They don’t respond well to panic. They need calm and clear direction. Direction can look like asking these dark thoughts questions, such as: Why does this keep coming up for me? Why do I always feel angry when X happens? How could what I’ve been through in the past be showing up in my life now? What would make me feel better right now?
I’ve worked on this piece slowly over four months. In that time I have shed old parts of myself so that I can grow, but not without many tears and the digging up of old, rotting roots. Like that tree, losing half of her arms at a moment’s notice, the changes I have undergone have left me feeling stripped and shell-shocked. The unknown became something I didn’t need an answer to, only something worth exploring. I haven’t had a drink since that last gimlet.
And here I stand: blooming. Not fully there, yet. Not like some of the other trees around me, who’ve weathered this storm and stand taller because of it. But my baby buds are swaying in the wind and I am on my way. Growth lies in the unknown, the uncomfortable and the, sometimes, terrifying. Everything that most of us were taught to avoid or control is unavoidable and out of our control. Perhaps it’s best, then, to make peace with this fact, shed the old parts of ourselves and grow. Why not me? Why not you?
Kayleigh Shuler is a writer/screenwriter living in Boston, MA. Kayleigh writes and directs custom scenes for actors and loves being a part of anyone’s creative and spiritual journey. Follow Kayleigh on Instagram at @kayleigh_shuler.