The hardest part of coming clean about drinking after a period of extended sobriety is not admitting that you’ve relapsed; it’s telling people that you don’t think you did anything wrong. People expect a mea culpa, a begging on your knees, a criss-cross over the heart that you’ll never do it again. People expect a rehab, maybe a round of meetings if the drinking wasn’t that bad, more a lapse than a relapse, more a slip up than a slide down. They don’t want to hear what you really have to say, which is: I’m not going to do all that again.
There was a time when sobriety felt like a superpower. Waking up every day with a clear head? Bopping around with natural energy? Going out to dinner and spending drink money on apps for the table and dessert? Going out at night and coming back at the exact time I planned and never worrying about the drive home? Watching the days stack up on the counter on my phone and realizing I could, in fact, keep a promise to myself. Come on. It was glorious.
Eventually I acclimated to my powers, and sobriety became just became a fact of life, and that was pretty good, too. Going months without thinking of a drink? Sniffing out other sober people and feeling instantly connected? Showing my kid that alcohol is not a mandatory part of the adult experience? Getting promoted at work and paying my bills and saving for retirement and enrolling my kid in camps and lessons and doing volunteer work. Come on. Waking up day after day and doing the next right thing is its own kind of powerful.
It all the changed in the pandemic. Sobriety became another responsibility I owed the world and, like educating my child and staying productive at work, it was one I was one I had no choice but to shoulder, no matter how hard it got. Instead of freedom, sobriety became duty, a mantle woven with iron.
In recovery, I learned to think of sobriety as the keystone holding up every good thing in my life–my loving family, my great job, my warm house. The mindset is supposed to encourage gratitude, but for me it inculcated fear. I had to keep this sobriety going, at any cost, or I would lose it all. Another thing that happens in recovery is that everybody in your life celebrates when you don’t take a drink, and people who’ve never done it themselves tell you how strong and brave you are. It doesn’t feel strong and brave to exist without engaging in one particular type of self-destruction–it feels baseline, necessary–but the accolades feel amazing. The recognition had a bitter side, though, when sobriety started to feel less like a choice a made and more like a cell I built. When you believe that you earn love through not drinking, the entirety of your self-worth collapses into the units of time you stay dry. To drink is not only to betray yourself, but to let down everyone around you. It’s even worse than that if you subscribe to the twelve-step model of recovery: to drink is to gamble with your life because, as they say in AA, to drink is to die.
That’s a heavy load to carry in the best of times, and during the pandemic it was like walking around with an axe hanging over my head. And with a mind like mine, one that starts looking for an escape hatch whenever the pressure mounts and inevitably slants toward self-harm, that axe looked shiny, easy to wield. It looked like a way out.
1,672 days. That’s the amount of time I had. 4 years, 9 months, and 27 days, excluding November 26, 2020, because that’s the day I took a drink.
I expected to hate myself after breaking sobriety, but I gave myself permission to feel another way. I felt not an ounce of remorse. Of course, there were some feelings I couldn’t logic may way out of. I could not avoid the anxiety, which roared back to life after a long dormant period. For weeks, the beast took up every inch of breathing room inside my chest and all the thinking room inside my head, and it still comes back in the evenings whenever I so much as think about a bottle of wine.
I could not avoid the ensuing obsession with when the next time would be. I’d hoped it would be otherwise, that the nearly five years alcohol free would have cured me of what feels like an insatiable appetite for altering my reality, but the thirst came roaring back to life. That was disappointing. Years and years ago, before I ever set foot in a recovery room, before I even entertained the idea that an alcoholic might look like me, before I understood that substance use disorder is a progressive thing, the thing that I called my dysfunctional “off switch” was the reason I started questioning my drinking in the first place. When I flipped the switch back on a few months ago I felt immediately that it was still sticky.
I could not avoid the shame, at least not at first. I want to be clear. There was no shame in the drinking. Not under these circumstances. What could be more reasonable that returning to an old coping mechanism while living through a reign of chaos and terror in an economic and social system designed to break the human spirit? No. There was shame about the way I was going about it, though. All the secrecy, and the sneaking around. I had to come clean or the slip was going to spiral into something worse.
The problem with coming clean was that I didn’t actually want to get clean. Certainly, I didn’t want to tie my self worth to it. I just wanted to figure out my shit in the clear light of day.
After I admitted it out loud–that I wasn’t sober anymore, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be–another feeling stirred to life, and this one I liked: I felt human. Sobriety, it turns out, is a hell of a drug, and falling off the wagon was like stepping down off a pedestal and rejoining the rest of the messy world.
The hardest part of talking about drinking after a period of extended sobriety is figuring out how to tell the truth instead of what people want to hear. I’m not trying to convince myself I never had a problem or looking for rock bottom. I’m not counting days or trying to claw my way back to what I had before. I’m not justifying the life I lived before or the choices I’m making now. I’m just living, sometimes well and sometimes poorly, and, frankly, not minding not having it all figured out.