FOUR YEARS sober today. Not drinking isn’t hard anymore. That wasn’t always the case. For years, not drinking was impossible. Then, for many long months, it was excruciatingly difficult. Now it’s easy. Life isn’t easy, but not drinking is. Here’s the thing I didn’t know, though. Life is better now. I thought a sober life would be the most boring. But it’s not! Quitting the thing I thought I loved the most opened the door to having all the things I actually love the most. Peace of mind. A happy family. Solid friendships. A job I love. Hobbies! I don’t think not drinking makes you a better person. (Though if you’re anything like me it might. Booze/drugs had a way of making me lie/cheat/fight/steal/hurt/generally annoy everyone around me.) I didn’t quit drinking to become a better person. I quit because I wanted a better life. And I got it! I’m not here to convert you though. I’m here because for years and years I thought I was the only Mormon girl who couldn’t stop drinking and the only party girl who hated herself in the morning and my whole world opened up when I realized I wasn’t alone. If the last four years have taught me anything it’s that neither are you, whatever your thing is.
Legal weed finally made its way to Illinois. It’s not cool to talk about this like it’s a big deal, to admit that it changes anything. Everybody I know who gets high was smoking or vaping or eating edibles in Illinois was doing it before January 1, 2020. Most everybody I know who doesn’t get high continues to have little interest in doing so in the new year, notwithstanding the change in legal status. In my life, over the last year or so, the subject of the impending legalization came up reliably, in tones of anticipation both eager and afraid, in only two places. The first was the local news articles I obsessively searched out on the internet, covering politicians eager for tax dollars and other politicians afraid of slippery slopes. The second was the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous, where people insisted in hushed tones that the new law didn’t change anything in terms of their sobriety while simultaneously admitting that it just might test their commitment because while the traditions tell us to limit our comments in meetings to our problems with alcohol, the truth is that a lot of us also really liked pot.
For almost a year, as long as J.B. Pritzker has been governor and recreational weed has been on the horizon, I’ve assumed I would get high. Before that, I occasionally looked into the requirements to get a permit to use it medicinally for, I dunno, my near-constant TMJD pain? My occasionally crippling anxiety? But alas, the list of qualifying medical conditions in Illinois is short and restrictive and I (blessedly, truly, because the conditions are severe) didn’t have any of them. Once the January 1 deadline was locked in, I stopped trolling the internet in the name of research because there was no longer any question about it: I was definitely going to partake.
I have not shared this with anyone. How can I, after almost four years of complete sobriety? Fine, almost complete. I ate one useless cannabis gummy on vacation in Colorado in 2018, but I haven’t had a sip of alcohol or swallowed a pill since January 30, 2016. Getting high, even legally, would be a big deal for me. Even before I quit drinking, it had been almost a decade since I smoked pot. The last time was in 2007, I think, in Tucson, under circumstances that I am both embarrassed and afraid to put in print (some things are better left for my fifth step or, let’s be real, my memoir). Even before that, I hadn’t been smoking regularly for awhile. I quit when I started dating the man who is now my husband in 2005. He is not a fan of pot, or drugs in general, or maybe he just wasn’t a fan of me on drugs. We only got high together once, or rather, I got high in front of him at Coachella and that trip culminated in me seeing barely any bands, missing the headliners to hang out in the medical tent, and, on the last day, smoking a joint that I picked up off the ground in the EDM tent and freaking out in full-blown paranoia the likes of which I’d never experienced before. Pot, for me, had always been just fun.
When I quit daily smoking and got a little distance from the drug, my life changed in such a dramatic way that it became hard for me to see pot like I used to, as harmless. In the course of less than a year, I transformed from being severely depressed–wholly unmotivated and lethargic on my best days and suicidal on my worst–to happy more days than not and, weirdly, ambitious. I applied for internships and part-time jobs and scholarships and eventually law school. I built a career, and a family with the man I quit for. Would I have done these things if I hadn’t quit? Maybe, eventually, though it’s hard to picture how that would have happened when the only thing I cared about was getting stoned. It’s even harder to picture how my life would have come together when the harder I chased feeling good the more my life unraveled.
So, why I am thinking about picking up now, after all these years, knowing how good I have it, and how lucky I am to have it? That one’s easy. I loved getting high. Specifically, I loved a marijuana high. After opiate addiction, drinking never satisfied me, but weed did. Or, I think it did? As I sit here, writing this out, I am transported to my last night in my dorm room freshman year, where I holed up for 12? 18? 24? hours smoking bowl after bowl, trying to pack my suitcases and clean my room and watching Magnolia on repeat, getting nowhere close to where I wanted to go. Cut to the house on Elm Street, where I hit the pipe before bed every night and still had to chase it down with half a bottle of NyQuil. Flash forward and back to all the nights I planned to just smoke a little weed and ended up out of my mind drunk and high careening around the house pissing off my roommates, falling down in the neighborhood, scaring men away, driving down major roads with no lights, getting pulled over with a stash and a cloud of smoke in my car and jumping out and charging the cop and only walking away with my life and no record because of the color of my skin.
Can I honestly say that marijuana was fine for me? That it mellowed me out? That it was anything but blood in the water for the hungry beast in my brain?
So, why do I still want to get high, knowing what it does to me, knowing what it could do to my life. Part of it is that, unlike with alcohol, I never got to the point that I wanted to stop. I “quit” when I fell in love with a man who was not compatible with my drug habit. I quit for real when I moved across the country for law school. I quit, but I never wanted to.
So, recreational weed has been legal in Illinois for seven days, and I’ve been back in town after traveling over the holidays for four, and there is a dispensary that is mere blocks from my home, steps from my office. I know the hours (they are annoying, 10:00 am to 2:00 pm), I know what they sell and I know what I’d buy. So why haven’t I done it yet, when I want to so badly.
I’m not afraid of losing my sobriety. I’m not afraid of jeopardizing my marriage or my job. I’m not afraid I will like the drug way too much and go overboard like I did back then or of not liking it enough and feeling like I threw away my four years for nothing.
I’m afraid of losing my sanity, my grip on this life. I’m afraid of psychosis. I know, that sounds so over-the-top, so uncool. When I was working the steps with a sponsor, she liked to point out that I might not have had gotten into trouble every time I drank, but every time I got in trouble I was drunk. Apply that to drugs and it goes something like, I might not have lost my mind every time I got high, but every time I lost my damn mind, I was pretty damn high. The last handful of times I smoked, after I knew it wasn’t good for me or my relationships, I was a mess. Back in 2015, when I was trying to quit drinking and doing weird things like huffing household chemicals, I inhaled my way into a dissociative panic attack that lasted a week and feared would last forever and I never want to feel that way again. Then there’s that anxiety and depression, which I manage for the most part pretty well, but are with me always and can still spin out of control. I’ve heard it said that the fears about cannabis-induced psychosis are overblown, that it’s only a concern for people who are predisposed to schizophrenia or who are mentally fragile. I may not be the former, but I don’t know, and I may not seem like the latter, but I do know that my mental health is a finicky finely-tuned thing, and my experience with alcoholism tells me that my body is one of those that cannot use certain substances safely, even when it seems like everyone else can.
I value my sanity, my mind, my health over everything. Will I do what I know it takes to protect myself from myself?
2018 was an exercise in restraint. Here is a short list of things I wanted to do and seriously considered doing at various points over the course of the year:
Quit my job
Start fertility treatments
Adopt a pet
Get a tattoo
Run a fourth marathon
Run an ultramarathon
Move to Arizona
Move to Denver
Move to Michigan
Move back to the city
Ingest technically legal but definitely questionable addictive substances
Pull my daughter from her class at the neighborhood elementary school and enroll her in private school
Officially resign from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints by having my name removed from the records of the church
Officially join the Methodist Church I’ve been attending for over two years
Quit going to AA after over two years of sobriety
I did not do any of these things despite, at times, wanting to very badly.
Because the things I want are not always good for me. The fact that I, in the moment, see no correlation between wanting to quit AA and wanting to get drunk, smoke weed, and buy kratom is clear evidence that I can’t trust my first instincts or my subsequent rationalizations.
I recognize that some of the things on that list are not like the others. Wanting another baby is not like wanting to get high. Wanting the best education for my daughter is not like wanting to quit my job. Even so, they all belong on the same list of things I wanted to but did not do because in every instance, they were external things that I hoped would change me. They were escape hatches from my life.
This is why I can’t have nice things.
One of these days, I may very well move or join a new church or even get a pet, but not until I’m sure I want those things for their own sake and not because I’m looking for a fix.
I never could wrap my head around people who loved being pregnant because that’s when they felt their healthiest. Pregnancy made me feel like shit. Besides the nausea that felt exactly like an endless hangover, I spent most of the first trimester wanting to crawl out of my own skin. I tried to commiserate with others who had been pregnant—“You know that feeling where you desperately need to change the way you feel with a drink or a pill but you just CAN’T? THAT’S the worst part of pregnancy!”—and they just stared back. Years later I would come to recognize that sensation as a symptom of untreated alcoholism, not pregnancy.
Even though I felt like garbage, I treated my pregnant body better than I ever had before. I took special prenatal supplements with some kind of oil for the baby’s brain, I ate piles of fruits and veg, I exercised to the very end, eliciting stares and comments at the gym. I slept, no small miracle for a former insomniac (thanks, drugs) and long-standing night owl. I did take a bunch of Category C medications and drink daily caffeine and eat sushi and deli meat and junk food because I’m no saint, but you guys, I didn’t drink! There was a lot of talk in my circles at that time about how a half a glass of wine on special occasions was *just fine* in the second and third trimesters, but I knew that I could not trust myself with half a glass. Not even with a baby inside.
I gave birth to a healthy baby via Caesarean and loved my body like never before. I was a BEAST. I could grow a human and undergo major abdominal surgery and keep that human alive. I resumed drinking as soon as I got home from the hospital, obviously, but continued, for the most part, to treat my body pretty well. I was exclusively breastfeeding, after all. I was inordinately proud of the fact that I was able to pump massive quantities of milk at work, way more than my baby needed, and nurse her morning and night. It upset me when she weaned at fifteen months. The World Health Organization recommended breastfeeding to age two at the time and I wanted to make it at least that long without needing to rely on a cow for milk. That’s what I was for.
I’d read some studies say the ideal spacing between kids is three years so I decided we should start trying to have another child when the oldest was two. I assumed I would get pregnant easily since that’s what happened the first time. When that didn’t happen, I was pissed. I took my anger and disappointment out my body. I dug up the pills that were miraculously still around from the c-section and took those. I drank. I drank especially in the days leading up to my period because I knew I’d have to stop when I got a positive pregnancy test. When the tests came up negative, I drank more. Why shouldn’t I? It’s not like I was pregnant. By that point I knew without question I shouldn’t be drinking but I drank anyway. Alone and in secret and in increasing quantities at increasingly inappropriate times.
This is what happens to women steeped in a toxic culture that says (1) a woman’s worth is in her fertility and (2) alcohol is the answer to a woman’s problems. My body failed me by not making a baby on demand, and I tried to drown.
In my unhappiness, I abused my body in other ways, ways that are far more subtle that I only recognize with hindsight. I skipped meals. I refused to replace my baggy suits with ones that fit because I might be pregnant soon. I sacrificed sleep at the alters of work and television.
It literally never occurred to me that I might do anything at all–let alone something fun or healthy or interesting–with a body that wasn’t pregnant or nursing. I never even thought about running that second marathon, the one I’d been wanting to do for years, the one I’d been training for and cancelled when I discovered I was pregnant the first time.
It was during one of my final few drunks that I was scrolling through Facebook (because being a drunk is actually really lonely and sad and boring) and saw that my friend M had signed up for a Tough Mudder and was looking for teammates. “Nahhhh, not for me,” I thought about both the invitation and the race. I was running semi-regularly at the time, but I didn’t do team sports or anything that required upper body strength. I scrolled on.
The day after my last drunk, I was supposed to have dinner with M but had to cancel because when 5:00 rolled around I was still too hungover to get out of bed. We rescheduled for the next weekend. Seven days later, exactly one week into shaky sobriety, I sat across from M at a fancy pub with a Diet Cola in one hand and a pork shank in the other and told her I’d run the insane race.
We started training together, meeting at a local playground at seven o’clock on freezy Sunday mornings to do tricep dips and assisted pull-ups on the monkey bars, jump squats onto picnic tables, and crunches in the mud. It was a drag and felt somehow like both way too much effort and ridiculously not enough to be putting into training for a six-mile obstacle race. As the weeks wore on, though, I felt worried that I still couldn’t do a pull-up on my own but proud that I had yet to succumb to the Saturday night impulse to text M and cancel. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d made a commitment and actually followed through on something that I didn’t have to do. Showing up felt good.
Four months after my last drunk I did the race with M and her friends (a triathlete and a U.S. Marine, natch). Two of us were injured so we had to walk a lot of the course but we completed every obstacle, from army crawling through ice-cold mud inches under barbed wire (Kiss of Mud) to hauling ass up a slick quarter pipe (Everest 2.0) to scaling twelve-foot wooden walls (Berlin Walls). My teammates and I took turns yanking each other up and over barrier after barrier, carrying each other piggyback in the heat, and trudging side-by-side through bacteria-laden swamp water to finish filthy and triumphant. Aside from giving birth, I was never so proud of or in love with my body.
I was also hooked. I started running as often and as long as I could after that. My weekend mileage hit the double digits enough that I figured I should get some credit for it, so I registered for and completed my second marathon (my first in seven years) that fall. I got bored with endless long slow runs added speed work to my routine. When I found myself with overuse injuries, I swam and cycled and tried all kinds of yoga. When I healed, I returned to running reinvigorated, renewed, overjoyed at simply being able to run without pain. I tossed out a few 5Ks to raise money with co-workers and with the family on Thanksgiving. I ran through cold wet Chicago springs, muggy Chicago summers, gorgeous Chicago falls, and brutal Chicago winters. I trained with weights. I finished my third marathon, this time fast.
I’d be lying if I said there aren’t days when I want a drink or ten. But one of the many things that helps me to go to sleep sober is thinking about how good I’m going to feel on the trail or the treadmill the next morning if I don’t. These days, there is always free beer on the other side of a finish line. I’m not lying when I say that after a race, after I’ve put my body to the test and seen it rise to the challenge, those are the times I want a drink the very least. I’m too happy.
I’d be lying if I said there aren’t days when I want another baby. But one of the many things that keeps me from sliding into grief is thinking how good it feels to push my body to do things I want to do.
When I look back on my year of relapse and trying to trying to conceive, the absurdity of what I was doing to myself is almost enough to make me believe in a higher power that saved me from getting pregnant at a time when I wasn’t capable of carrying a child. Of course, that doesn’t explain why I’m not pregnant now, with my 2.5 years of sobriety and a solid recovery program. However, when I look back on the many, many moments over those 2.5 years that I experienced pure joy in moving my body, in getting stronger, faster, freer, well, it’s almost enough to make me believe that my body is a gift for me, not for babies. My body’s worth is in what it can do for me, not you or him or God or future generations. I am meant to enjoy this body for what it can do, not to mourn what it can’t. I can’t get pregnant and I can’t drink but I can and will eat and dance and swim and stretch and fuck and run and run and run.
[You can find my first What A Body’s Good For essay here.]
I sit in recovery groups, literal circles, and listen to people talk about their feelings. “I couldn’t feel my feelings,” they say, shaking their heads in disbelief, like that explains everything. Or they say, “I can sit with my feelings now,” and nod in satisfaction, like it’s all better now. Newcomers confess with their heads hung low, “I’m feeling my feelings, and I don’t like it,” like it’s the worst thing that ever happened, or they say, “I’m learning to feel my feelings,” like it’s the fucking best. Men and women with a decade or more of sober time, people who figured out how to drink but still don’t like the choices they are making, let the air whoosh out of their mouths and put it out there, “I’m still numbing,” with chocolate or exercise or home renovations, like looking for something that takes a person outside herself is a problem in and of itself, as if those things could do a fraction of the damage drugs and alcohol did to their lives.
I get this and I don’t. Of course I used drugs and alcohol to change and amplify and dull my feelings. But I have never suffered from a lack of feelings and I did not have to “learn” to feel them. I always felt them, for better or worse, usually worse. For years, I thought anxiety was God or my gut telling me I’d fucked something up. For practically my whole life, I thought the crushed feeling in my chest meant I was special and sensitive and too good for this world. I thought the sinking in my stomach meant I’d been grievously wronged and needed to do something drastic to put things right–cut someone out of my life or scream or painstakingly explain why people had things all wrong. I thought a racing mind meant I had to act, now. I thought burning shame meant I was the one who did wrong. All those feelings had to mean something. They couldn’t be for nothing, right?
Wrong. If there is anything I’ve learned from therapy and meditation and working the steps, it’s this: my feelings are not to be trusted. They change, for one thing. Like, all the time. For another, as often as not, they are a product of fucked-up, dysfunctional thinking. Frankly, I don’t see the value in giving them any time or attention at all. And I certainly don’t see the harm in throwing myself into a good book or a long run or a new project or a box of cookies of it makes it all a little less painful. Fuck my feelings.
Maybe I’m not enlightened. Maybe I’m in denial. Maybe all this repression is going to blow up in my face in a year or ten. Maybe I’m not sober, just “dry.” Or maybe this is what it means to be human.
It’s been quiet around here, no?
I started this secret blog because I had an ocean of stories I needed to tell, a loud head I needed to quiet, and, honestly, a violent interior life I needed to quell. I had nobody to talk to and no way to make sense of what was happening in my life or my mind except to write it out. I expected this to become a diary of my recovery, something I would be able to look back to and track where I was at on Day -29, Day 90, Day 180, and so on, never mind that I didn’t have a clue about the concept of “recovery,” and certainly didn’t think it was something I qualified for, or was capable of, or deserved. Today is Day 704 without a drink or a mood or mind altering drug. I’ve had so much to say this last one year eleven months and four days. I had so much to say in the ten, twenty, thirty years that led to my last Day 1. I still have so much to say. And yet, this place has been quiet.
I want to account for my silence. Not because I need to. I know I don’t owe the seven readers of my anonymous blog anything. I know even if I had a lot more readers, I wouldn’t owe them an explanation as to why the record of my emotional life on the internet is not as meticulous as it could be. The truth is, I want to write about about my silence because it is interesting to me that somebody as verbose and teeming with creative energy and intellectually excited by and curious about the radical spiritual journey I’ve been on these last few years as I am would consciously avoid the blog she set up for the express purpose of channeling that excess energy and exploring those wild ideas. I mean, something’s got to be going on there, right?
There are two basic reasons for my absence. The first one is pretty straightforward.
I started the blog because I thought I needed it and I did need it, until I didn’t. I posted my last big milestone post when I was six months sober. Then I almost relapsed and got my ass into AA. And you guys, AA meetings don’t consist solely of coffee and donuts and folding chairs. There are actual people there, and they are nice. Also, as it turns out, if dredging up your past and regaling a crowd with drunkalogues and agonizing over your relationships with everything from booze to food to your mom to yourself to your obnoxiously well-dressed co-worker is your thing, AA is, like the perfect place to do that. I occasionally see advice to newcomers along the lines of, “Don’t worry, you don’t have to talk, just listen,” but after over a lifetime of thinking that I was the only person in the world who walked around feeling like a stranger in my own life, that nobody enjoyed that first drink, the one that turned the lights on, quite as much as I did, that I alone struggled with the apparent inability to drink like a grown up, I was desperate to talk. I used up every bit of the three minutes or so I got to talk at meetings. It was enough just to unload on kind-eyed strangers, and it was like Christmas morning when I saw women nodding when I talked about trying to figure out how to nurse my baby after I’d had to much to drink (forced to choose, literally, between feeding my addiction and feeding my child) because they got it. Forget about making a roomful of people laugh with a story about my unsuccessful suicide attempt; that was like gold, because they understood that it was tragic and funny. In AA I found a place to excavate my past, to shine a light on my drinking behaviors, on all that shamed me, really, and, as a result, to arrive at the conclusion that, yes, I really did have a problem with alcohol and, yes, I really did need to quit and, yes, I might actually be able to quit and not be too mad about it, if I just did the things that the darkly funny people with the kind eyes did. Once I had those things, I didn’t need to muddle my way to sobriety via a blank page and an internet connection.
That’s not the whole story, though. I may not need writing the way I used to, but I miss it. I want to tell these stories, to layer my experiences and memories and ideas together with words and, in so doing, make them into something more than what they were. What I really want is to give them to somebody who might need them, but I’ll settle for somebody who might find them halfway interesting. So why do I go months without writing anything longer than an Instagram caption?
The answer is that writing here doesn’t feel good. Or, more accurately, it doesn’t feel right. I certainly try to write. I’ll open up the computer, spool out a few lines, and spin out, triggered. Writing about my drinking days, more often than not, makes me want to drink. Writing about drugs makes me to get high. They don’t scrape out your taste buds when you get sober; I will always like these things. Or, I’ll labor over a piece for days, or weeks, and hit publish, only to be seized with anxiety. Should I share it with my online recovery community? With my friends? With my family? If no one is reading my work, why am I even writing?
That this is the reaction I have to my own writing, to the act of writing, baffles me. I see so many people navigating the waters of recovery by writing about it. Writing seems to bring them a measure of relief, even freedom. This is not my experience. Why not? I see that these people call themselves truth tellers and I worry. Do I not tell the truth when I write? Is that why it makes me anxious? I see these people using their platforms to carry a message of hope to others suffering in addiction. Are my reasons for writing too selfish? Is that why writing publicly fills me up with guilt? Or maybe the guilt comes from the fact that anonymity is part of twelve-step philosophy. I used to be comfortable being out-of-step but lately I’ve found more peace falling in line.
Another theory is that a lot of the sober writers I read lost their voices in addiction, or never knew the joy of speaking freely in the first place. Not me. I’ve been speaking my truth for years. Not the whole truth, and certainly not to the degree I do now, but I have been writing online about uncomfortable topics in one form or another for years, from the Xanga and Blogspot accounts where I explored my nascent sexuality to the WordPress site where I documented my feminist awakening and ensuing critiques of the Mormon church. While I’d be happy if the drivel I wrote in my angsty teenage years never saw the light of day, I’m pretty proud of the writing I did about gender and marriage and religion and identity over last ten years or so. So much so that it pains me to admit that much of that writing came from the same place as my drinking.
Take this clever feminist critique and see how smart I am.
Peruse this painful account of sexual harassment and see how hard I’ve had it.
Absorb this liberal manifesto and see how progressive I am.
Read this funny account of a road trip with my husband who is not Mormon and see how happy we are.
Listen to me delineate the travails of breastfeeding and see that I am a good mom.
Hear my plea to the Mormon church to change–to acknowledge LGBTQ relationships, to person women–and change your mind about everything you’ve ever believed.
My writing was an exercise in character defects: grandiosity; self-loathing; arrogance; self-pity; anger; fear; pride; intolerance–the list goes on and on.
And here’s the rub. My writing, as often as not, is still colored by, maybe even rooted in, these same defects.
Take this critique of a hackneyed recovery aphorism and see how smart I am.
Read this alcoholic’s experience of drinking culture and change your views on booze.
Parse this painful account of one of my many bottoms and see how hard I’ve had it.
Enjoy this tale of triumph over drugs and alcohol and religious dogma and see how strong I am.
Hear my plea to lookatme lookatme lookatme and know I am special, or least a damn good writer.
I write because I can’t not, because it is how I understand my place in the world, but I can’t stop myself from using my writing to seek validation, to control how people see me, to make myself into somebody I can like myself.
It’s all futile.
Writing like this won’t give me what I need and it won’t feel good in the end but it still gives me something so I guess I’ll see you here until something changes.
I finally went to the OB-GYN last week. I hadn’t been since my post-partum check up, six weeks after my daughter was born. That was four years ago. The CNM scrunched up her face when I told her. “You haven’t had any lady care for four years?”
It pisses me off that people are often blasé about the fact that men in their twenties and thirties go to the doctor pretty much never but women who don’t go the the OB-GYN every year are seen as irresponsible. “I thought the USPSTF changed the recommendation for pap screening from one to three years?” It was half question, half half-hearted explanation. That wasn’t why I hadn’t been in, but it made me feel better. “Plus, I’m not on birth control,” I added, realizing I hadn’t adequately justified my hiatus from reproductive health. That one hit a little closer to the truth of the matter. I stopped taking hormonal birth control the year before I got pregnant and never went back on, and absolutely relished the freedom. Yes, I realize that the pill that tied me to a doctor and flatlined my sex drive is the same one that liberated me and millions of other women. I can hold onto both of these truths at the same time. The CNM tucked her leg up onto the chair, tucked a chunk of pink hair behind her ear, chiding me quietly as she pulled up a new chart: “That may be, but you still need exams.”
It’s not like I’d been neglecting my health. I am in tune with my body to an almost freakish degree and I love medicine of both the Eastern and Western variety. Almost as soon as I went back to work after maternity leave, my stress-induced TMJ flared up. I tried acupuncture first, but it didn’t do enough to justify ducking out of work for an hour at a time, so I turned to an internist who was so cute I decided he would be my first-ever adult primary care physician. What I wanted was painkillers. What I got was a referral for PT that ended up being exorbitantly expensive and inordinately time-consuming and not covered by my insurance.
Later that year, I went back to the internist about a strange rash. I made big plans to tell him about my anxiety, too, but couldn’t find the words. I’d never told anybody how my chest tightened up every day when I left the office, or how my stomach roiled before I left the house. Was that anxiety? Was it bad enough to warrant medication or did I just want to get high? What I wanted was to get the ball rolling toward a prescription for Xanax. What I got was a diagnosis of stress-induced eczema.
A few months after that I huffed a chemical inhalant in the middle of my work day. I think the high lasted a few hours but it was hard to tell when it wore off because my head didn’t come back to my body. I remained in a dissociative state that the internet told me was called depersonalization for six days. I remembered that I had a primary care doctor and called his office to beg for an appointment. A different doctor in the same practice group squeezed me in. “Are you under a lot of stress?” he asked, shining a light into my eyes. I nodded. He asked me to turn my head from side to side. “Do you find yourself crying?” “Mhm.” My eyes welled up. What I wanted was somebody to tell me I didn’t have brain damage. What I got was instructions to come back for a full blood workup the next week.
I went to a therapist instead.
I went through a round of CBT.
I got back to running.
In short, I started to get right mentally, physically, and spiritually.
Nine months after I quit drinking, I ran a marathon. A particularly severe bout of post-race tendonitis drove me back to the primary care physician. I’d sustained enough strains and sprains in my two decades as a runner to know that ice and rest would do the trick, but the pain in my hip was bad enough that I figured I could benefit from talking to a physical therapist who specialized in running injuries. Of course, I never would have booked the appointment if I didn’t think I there was a chance I could also get drugs. In the few minutes it took to schedule an appointment online, the pink cloud that had been carrying me for months dissipated. I went from happy sober person, chirping away in meetings about how great it felt to be so present for my family during the holidays to walking zombie. I went from wanting to get better quickly to hoping for something serious–a fracture or a tear. I didn’t think about calling my sponsor. I didn’t think about what I’d do when the pills ran out. I couldn’t think about anything but the possibility of getting high again. I obsessed about what I needed to do to make it happen. The next day, I hobbled to the office and told the doctor with a straight face that the pain was an eight. I told him I could barely walk. I got him worried enough that he wrote out an order for an x-ray, which is when I knew the jig was up because there was a minuscule chance I might be pregnant that I couldn’t ignore, given how long my husband and I had been trying to have a second kid. The doctor sent me home with no x-ray, no drugs, and prescription for ice and rest. “Come back if it still hurts when you get your period.” Fuck.
Once you’ve developed a taste for pharmaceuticals, every doctor’s office is a street corner, every appointment a seedy transaction, every honest ailment immediately supplanted by symptoms of the most plausible path to opiate relief. And when you are sober, every ache is an invitation to go back out. It’s easy to pretend you’re not flirting with relapse because sometimes people need medicine. With my history, the question of how prescription drugs fit into sobriety should be black and white but when I try to hold a picture of my sober life still in my head, there is so much blank space I start filling in the gaps with gray. Of course, most doctors aren’t handing out controlled substances like candy anymore. When you are an ex-pillhead, that almost doesn’t matter. The possibility alone is enough to throw you off course. It’s easier to avoid doctors altogether.
So that’s why I haven’t been to OB-GYN. I can’t trust myself to go in for a pap smear and not drum up enough undiagnosable premenstrual pain to walk out with a low-grade narcotic that will start the slow unspooling of my life. If you jump through enough hoops, the drugs will come. That’s how, last month, I ended up driving myself away from the hospital at 2 AM on a Sunday with a clean bill of health and a unnecessary prescription for Norco tucked in my bag, mind racing with thoughts like:
“A tranvaginal ultrasound is a steep price to pay for a week’s worth of pills;” and
“I guess nobody ever accused a junkie of driving a hard bargain;” and, most importantly,
“What the fuck am I going to do when these pills run out?”
The next 24 hours were mental torture. I had drugs, but I also had a head full of AA, which means I am utterly incapable of convincing myself that taking even one pill (or drink) is not a big deal. I know where one pill (or drink) goes. I’ve been there before and it’s hell. There is no easy way back if you even get a chance to come back.
Of course I was going to fill the prescription anyway. I went to four pharmacies that day. One rejected my (extremely common and accepted everywhere) insurance. The other three were closed, two of them within thirty minutes of me showing up. By 8 PM I had nowhere to go but my usual Sunday night candlelight meeting. Somebody said something about their daughter and I remembered (for the first time in days) that mine was turning four soon and that if I took those pills, I’d be drinking or using or withdrawing on her birthday. I knew enough about myself to know there was simply no way I would not be a fucking mess. I went home knowing what I had to do, knowing exactly how good I would feel when I did it, but still unwilling. The next morning I woke up early and, without giving myself time to think the decision through, turned on the stove and stuck my hand with the paper prescription into the burner. The night before, a doctor friend had told me to just rip it up, which I guess would have done the trick, but I needed this thing gone. The burn was not clean; I was.
The unexplained pain that had precipiated my ER visit disappeared that day.
I kept the OB-GYN appointment I had scheduled a few days earlier anyway. I’ve been trying to have another baby for two years and have reached the point that I can’t pretend doctors don’t exist. The CNM asked me questions as she filled in my chart. “What was the first day of your last period?” “How many days is your cycle?” “Do you drink?”
I looked up from the paperwork I was working on and looked her in the eye and told her what I’ve before never told a medical professional because I was not willing to burn bridges I might want to cross later: “No. I haven’t had a drink since January 30, 2016. I have a history of substance abuse, mostly painkillers and weed. I can’t mess around with that stuff.”
“Congratulations!” she said.
When I left, I felt relieved. Not because I think I am finally going to get pregnant but because I finally have a doctor I can go back to without tearing open my old wounds.
Today is one of those jaw-unhingingly gorgeous days. Seventy-five and sunny with a breeze blowing off the river, I want to suck it and let the juice run down my neck. Women in thigh-grazing dresses. Men in shorts. Scrappy dogs tugging at leashes. Tourists clogging up bridges. High-rise residents sprawled in muddy grass. Old men in khaki vests and fishing boats.
Usually, for me, season changes carry with them a whiff of oblivion. Spring was for getting stoned in the bushes, baking in the sun. Later, it was for summer wheats, Bell’s with a slice of orange. My family moved to Phoenix when I was six years old and my mom used to call me outside to smell the orange blossoms. I inhaled, barefoot on the concrete, taking in the trees and the sight of flowers brushing a cinder block wall, and went back inside with itchy, bloodshot eyes. I was allergic.
I pass a dozen happy hours on the way to the train after work. Today, the windows are thrown open and I catch the sound of revelry and smell of hops. Some sober women are undone by the scent of red wine; for me, it is beer and belonging. My best drinking dream involves sipping an IPA on a porch full of friends drenched in the setting sun. It’s pure gold, and pure fantasy. I never sipped anything, and the day always turned dark. Also, I drank alone.
Today, I walk by eleven bars before I think to breathe in, hard, like I’m after a second-hand high. The beer smells so good. Better then orange blossoms. I turn my head, chance a glance at a tabletop of half empty glasses, and I keep walking. I’m not itchy anymore, but I know I’m allergic.
The day is so beautiful that during the lunch hour the riverwalk outside my building is lined with office workers, kicking off their shoes, thumbing the pages of a book, picking at a salad. My feet know better than my head where serenity lives, though, and they march me into the loop, under the elevated train tracks, and into the non-descript building that houses the AA central office. You can’t even see the water, let alone feel the breeze on your skin. I walk inside and make a beeline for the elevator that will take me to the third floor and the windowless meeting room. I grin and wave at the doorman.
“You know where you’re going, miss?”
“Yes. I really do.”
I don’t check my clean time counter app often (ever) and haven’t paid attention to my day count since I celebrated one year in January, but today I spontaneously checked the app and lo and behold: I am one year one month and one week sober. I guess it would be even cooler if I checked tomorrow, at one year one month one week and one day, but we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. It’s only been a few 24 hours.
I don’t put much (any) stock in so-called angel numbers, but the internet tells me 111 is a number of manifesting. The angels are telling me to watch my persistent thoughts as they will become my reality.
As an alcoholic with maybe a touch of self-diagnosed OCD all my thoughts are persistent thoughts. Lately, I’ve been oscillating between obsessive focus on what I want but can’t imagine having–publishing a book–and the consolation prize–relapse.
I’ll take the out of the blue thought to check the clean time counter and the fact that I noticed the one one one at all as a sign to tilt my thoughts toward the former.
I gave up Facebook for Lent and in the extra time I had in only six days I wrote the story that’s been simmering inside me for over a year: the story of leaving the Mormon church. Where will it go? Here? On another website as a standalone essay? In a book? A compilation or a memoir?
Tell me what to do, Internet.
I am so, so sorry.
I know what it’s like to be betrayed by your body, to rage against it. In Feb 2014, I relapsed after 9 months of not drinking because I did not know how to cope with the fact that I couldn’t just will my body to make another baby. I wanted to disconnect from myself and from my desire to grow my family so badly that drugs seemed like the only option. I spent the rest of that year trying to get pregnant and cycling between trying very hard to be good for two weeks at a time and then promising myself that I could get drunk when my period came. I usually ended up getting drunk before that even because I knew that as soon as a pregnancy test confirmed it, I’d have to quit. When my period came late, as it did often but only after we started trying, only after 15+ years of running like clockwork because biology is a funny bitch, I drank even more, in preemptive defense, to kill my disappointment by killing my hope.
I know what it’s like to blame yourself. Almost two years later, I still can’t get pregnant, and it is an ongoing battle to fight off the looming despair and the lure of the idea that infertility is my punishment for not treating my body better, for drinking and drugging away my prime fertile years, for succumbing to anxiety, for losing sleep to work and worry.
I know what it’s like to hate your husband for not giving you what you want, which is permission to break a promise you made to yourself, to want to leave a good man so that you can get shitfaced.
The good news is that I also know what it’s like to be solid enough in my sobriety that even the worst news can’t derail it. I know what it’s like to take care of myself, with food and sleep and hot fucking showers (and I am somebody who still recoils at the phrase “self-care” and the cheesy image of a woman in a bath inhaling essential oils). I know what it’s like to say no, not today to the invitation to wallow in grief and what-ifs. I know what it’s like to keep moving forward, with dark humor and grim determination and a tiny bit of hope and pint of nothing but a ginger beer.
I’m proud of you for not drinking, and for looking for help instead. You will make it through this and be all the stronger, more complicated, and more interesting for it. You’ve got layers, baby. Let’s keep them dry.
All my love,