Earlier this summer I went camping in the woods in Northern Michigan with my husband, daughter, two friends of ours, and two friends of our friends. I like to think of myself as outdoorsy but the truth is it is more in theory than in practice. My hikes are more like toddler-friendly nature walks that clock in at 60 minutes or less and trips to botanic gardens in my neck of the woods are uniformly preceded by fancy brunch or sushi. The last time I went rustic camping was years and years ago, before I had my daughter, before I met my husband, and I spent the entire trip dangerously drunk and stoned, stumbling around in the dark doing things I’d like to say I don’t remember because it’s been a decade but in reality never remembered at all.
The summer–this one, with my family, not the hellish one I spent breathing fire way back when–has been jammed with work and joy and I had been so looking forward to getting away for a few days that it didn’t occur to me that camping might be a trigger. And then, about an hour after we arrived at our site and set up camp, our friends rolled in and cracked beers before they even set up their tent. They are serious campers but also serious beer drinkers. I felt instantly left out and a craving kicked in. I knew that feeling would intensify when the other couple showed up and the vibe morphed from family trip to party trip.
After we finished pitching the tent, my husband gave me a tour of the “kitchen” he set up in the trunk of our car. He opened the big insulated bag filled with smaller airtight bags of snacks, fruit, and sandwiches. He showed me the plastic bag containing utinsils, spices, and paper towels. He gestured to the cooler stocked with drinks. He warned me to steer clear of the liter-sized metal water bottle tucked near the spare tire. The liquid inside looked like water but reeked of ethanol. He told me it was Everclear, for starting the fire in the camp stove. He joked about the last time we’d spent the night in a tent together, at a music festival in the California desert, when we’d dumped half of the water bottles in the flat we had picked up at Costco and re-filled them with vodka and spent the entire weekend spitting mouthfuls of the stuff into the dirt, after accidentally gulping from the wrong bottle desperate from relief from the sweltering heat.
I laughed at the memory of our college stupidity, but carefully filed away the knowledge that there was a bottle of high alcohol content booze that would be poorly accounted for in our very own campsite. In the last months of my drinking, secretly chugging liquor straight from the bottle or, if I was not at home, a water bottle, was my MO. Armed with the comfort of a familiar (albeit fucked up) routine, my brain started re-writing our plan for the weekend. We’d still spend hours looking for petoskey stones on the beach and reading Stephen King by the fire, but we’d do it all tipsy and hope nobody noticed. I pushed away scary thoughts about how Everclear is a guaranteed blackout. I ignored nauseous memories of my last hangover. I figured I’d start after I put my kid to sleep in the tent.
We got the girl down as the sun was setting. And then, instead of hanging back at our site and drinking alone, in a moment of remarkable honesty and self-preservation, I told my husband that I was feeling shaky. He offered to drink fancy fizzy water with me and we carried a few cans to share around the campfire at our friends’ neighboring site. A few minutes later our friends’ friends, a couple, joined us. Right away, I noticed they were drinking Gatorade. They drank Gatorade the whole night. They laughed and told jokes and shared stories and were, by all accounts, cool as shit. I’d also noticed the two kayaks on top of their car and wondered if they were drinking Gatorade because they had to wake up early.
Sitting around the picnic table over breakfast the next morning, I learned that both of them were in long-term recovery. They met in the program. They had fifteen years apiece.
Over the course of the weekend, I learned that they are also kayakers and backpackers. They have tattoos and interesting haircuts and a hyper dog. They are funny and laid back and kind and generous. They were super nice to my daughter, making her pb&j and sneaking her gummy bears.
Immediately upon learning that this couple was sober, my brain was able to scrap our plans to make the trip sad and lonely and drunk. This couple reminded me that I want to be one of the clear-headed ones, that I am lucky to be one of the clear-headed ones, that this is actually the better path.
I am back to real life now, with a bag full of rocks (mostly ordinary-looking) that my kid found on the beach and just had to bring home, limbs full of bug bites, and a head full of memories. I am also actively planning my next escape to the woods again, instead of the bottom of a bottle.