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The Cooler

I’ve recently started bike riding again and it makes me feel young. The minute I get on my bike and head out my driveway I have the same automatic lifting of spirits that I used to experience on any bicycle as soon as I learned how to ride one. The minute the breeze from the first downhill hits my face and lifts my hair I feel washed clean. Whatever was mentally running me around or grinding me down is immediately forgotten the minute my legs start pumping away.

My family and I live on a hill right near picturesque and bucolic Bedford, New York, the perfect bike riding town in my opinion. Bedford is filled with lovely homes and well-kept barns - lush green fields dotted with calm and nicely groomed horses. Majestic old trees line the barely trafficked, smooth and well-paved streets. We get lost on the long and winding ups and downs, and I love it.

Last weekend my husband and I were enjoying a Sunday morning ride. He was way ahead of me as he often is. The hubs rides because he enjoys the exercise. I bike ride as a tourist, placidly taking a break from myself while appreciating what our Bedford neighbors have done with their properties. “This isn't a house and garden tour. Let’s pick up the pace please” my husband will often beseech me - and I do. But this ride I was way behind him. I couldn't even see him in the distance and as I picked up the pace, furious to catch up, I saw, on the back porch of a small black and white colonial, set back from the street in a small patch of woods, a white cooler with a red lid. That’s when the story started. And it was all downhill from there.

“What is in that cooler?” I wondered. “Something sinister no doubt.” My stories are almost all sinister in fashion. "It's most likely a kilo or two of black tar heroin" I assured myself. Why there would be kilos of heroin sitting on a suburban back porch in a cooler in serene and lovely Bedford is beside the point. But when that plot line didn't give me what I was looking for I upped the ante. “I’ll bet it's a severed head” I told myself confidently. “The severed head of a family member who lives in that white colonial. A head left there by some goon on the direct orders of the capo of the crime boss from one town over. As a warning? As a threat? As payback?”

But I wasn't sure a head could fit in that cooler. And I had seen no visible blood on the outside of the cooler itself. It was far behind me now but in my recollection I was not convinced that a full grown severed human head could actually fit in there. “Maybe it’s a smaller adult’s head? Or someone's hands? Or feet? Or maybe, gruesome of all gruesomes, a child's head?” A child's severed head was surprisingly even too dark for me so I settled on one severed hand and one severed foot. On ice.

I rode on in a state close to terror, my heart thumping away in my chest, cold and clammy with sweat. My husband was waiting for me at the top of the next steep hill. I pulled up next to him, hopped off my bike, grabbed a drink of water, took off my helmet and tried to steady my breath, still quite traumatized by what I had seen. The horror of it all!

“What a day!” the hubs hooted in his usual optimistic fashion, surveying the landscape, appreciative of the natural beauty. I looked at him then, shocked. Hadn’t he seen what I had seen? Wasn’t he frightened? Shouldn't we call the police? Turn around? Flee for home? Was he completely unaware of the dangers lurking on possibly every back porch in Bedford, New York?

“Did you see that cooler?” I asked him softly.

"What?” he asked as he got off his bike, gazing calmly around our hilltop perch where we were resting in the shade.

“That cooler” I pointed behind us, from whence we had come, “on the porch back there. On the back porch of that small colonial in the woods.”

“Huh?” he said, not really paying attention as he stretched his “hammies” and got ready to re-mount.

But of course he hadn't seen the cooler. I’m sure he whizzed by it with nary a thought. And if he had seen it he probably would have paid it no mind. No mind at all. And knowing my husband if he did stop to consider the cooler he most likely would have thought “oh, probably filled with cold drinks or fresh fruit”. Something nice, something even-keeled, something that was not a severed head, adult or otherwise, and certainly not a collection of cruelly amputated hands and feet.

I got back on my bike, chastising myself for my darkness, my weirdness, my gruesome mind. But underneath the hair shirt of self-reproach there was something else calling for my attention. Something bright and shiny and heart-thumpingly thrilling. Through my story I had scared myself and by scaring myself I had unwittingly produced a stunning amount of that powerful and addictive and delicious amphetamine, adrenaline.

I was in an altered state of mind and body, and I liked it. And I realized then that this was my very first addiction. Before pot or booze or pills or food this was it. This dark and disturbed storytelling and the speedy and cocaine-like adrenaline these tales could produce. This was the very first way I found to alter my state and my chemistry. I see that I started doing this as a young child, lying in bed at night, unsure of what was happening, scared. And so, I suppose in a self protective quirk of the mind and its ways of dealing with itself, I would terrorize myself. Day after day, night after night, year after year. And in this way when I would come down from my terror high and look around my house and room and environment, what had previously seemed quite unstable, now, in comparison to a pile of chopped up bloody body parts, didn't seem so bad after all.

But these stories still scare me, quite effectively. And yes, they do produce this surge of adrenaline that I am still quite addicted to. I effectively use adrenaline as a stimulant to get me up and out but there is a downside. And that is the comedown. From “the story”, from the adrenaline high, from the self-produced terror.

The comedown from the adrenaline surge feels sad and grey and bleak. It seems like the only thing that will make me feel better, that will jumpstart my heart back into its usual terrorized gallop is more of the very same drug that got me there, more severed heads in coolers, more chopped up hands and feet, more terror, more adrenaline.

“I don’t need this anymore,” I tell myself in one of my frequent pep-talks. “I am no longer living in an environment that feels fragile. This is an old maladaptive coping mechanism. An old habit. An old addiction. I’m too old for this nonsense and I’m not sure the ancient ticker can take it anymore. These heart attack levels of self-induced terror, these high highs and low lows are exhausting.”

Oddly enough I now see that this first addiction of mine, this scaring myself into an altered state, will most likely be the last one to go. With drugs and alcohol at least there is a physical substance to put down, to set aside, to say no thank you to. Which makes it easier, in a way, than dealing with the never-ending and sometimes quite draining “stories” my mind produces.

But I’ll work on it. I am working on it. At least I’m aware of it. And I can change the story. In A.A. I have learned that anyone, at any time, anywhere, has the ability to change their story. But that’s not easy. Giving up any addiction is slow going. I certainly will miss those euphoric, terror-induced adrenaline highs. But maybe, just maybe, I can find those another way. Or maybe, just maybe, I don’t need them at all anymore. Maybe I can let them go the way I let booze go so many moons ago.

And on my next bike ride, which is in a few hours from now, if I happen to see a cooler on a back porch, maybe I will be able to see it as what it is, a cooler on someone's back porch. A cooler, maybe filled with something delicious, or maybe empty. But essentially, at the end of the day, just a cooler - plain and simple.


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