Category: Recovery

Breathing In The Spring

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.”

To The Woman Who Is Trying To Stay Sober While Trying To Get Pregnant (And Failing)

​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,

Falling

Autumn is a mindfuck, a veritable minefield of triggers. I rake through memories of seasons past and can’t unscramble what is true from how I felt. 

I am spinning madcap in the front yard with my brother on Thanksgiving, pitching back and forth, falling in the leaves, numb fingers fumbling the kid-sized football, wild from chugging Martinelli’s. We are only pretending to be drunk, but hanging on the verge of adolescence, outside without our parents on a cold Ohio night is actually intoxicating. I will reach back to this night and understand that this is when I first knew I was different. I won’t take my first drink for another five years, but the way I creep into the kitchen and empty bottles without abandon, the crush of my wish for them to contain something other than virginal apple cider, so that my actions might mean something, so that I might feel different, so that my life might be real, and the absolute certainty I have that alcohol will give me these things tells me something about myself. I know that when I do pick up a bottle, I will never want to put it down. 

I am stretched out on the floor of a non-descript new construction home in the Arizona suburbs. I don’t know whose house it is, or if anybody I am with lives here. I am face down, then face up, stomach churning, skin burning, head tied to the top of my neck by a thin string. I press my body flush against the tile, cool this time of year, having let go of the summer heat. “I think I have the flu,” I say, to no one in particular. A voice responds, calm but impatient: “No you don’t.” I’ve been taking pills for a few months now, but this is the first time I’ve washed them down with warm beer. I miss the clean high, but notice a new depth to my oblivion. Is this my first drink? I don’t black out often, but when I reach back, this whole year will be a blank. 

I am tripping through a corn maze, the seventh wheel on a date with my roommates and their boyfriends, careening around blind corners into parents and children and preteens holding hands, breaking down stalks to force my way off this course and into the haunted route that cost ten dollars more and features chainsaws and grisley backlit murder scenes. Am I drunk on vodka or does that come later in the night, at the house on Elm Street, the locus of a nine month waking nightmare? Am I high or did that come earlier, before one of the boyfriends drove us out to the farm in the middle of the desert in his wood-paneled PT Cruiser?  Am I annoyed verging on angry at my friends because I am coming down or because they are sharing their affections with all these men who are not me? Am I depressed because I am lonely or because my brain stopped producing serotonin? In a few weeks time, I will cut my own hair and dye it black and my standards will drop so low that I will hook up with a crackhead dressed like Jesus and spend a week pissed when he doesn’t call me back.

I am in law school and just finished with the first major assignment of the semester, a memo for my legal writing class. I take the State Street bus to the quad to turn in my paper and make conversation with an older man, who proceeds to follow and grope me when I climb off at my stop. I’ve been almost all the way dry for a few months, except for the odd bottle of wine or three with my roommate and I do not plan to drink, but am rattled enough that by the time I meet my friends at the bar and get through the line, I am ordering pitchers of Two Hearted. I don’t remember how I get home. Years later, I will read an essay about how women drink because of the patriarchy and think back to this incident and know without a doubt that it is true.

I am newly married and newly graduated and Chicago is leaking color as the months speed past moving into our first home, buying our first furniture that is not composed primarily of particle board, finding our first dog, starting our first grown up jobs. I finally have everything I want and I want to get high so badly I could scream. I have to stop listening to certain songs (by Gillian Welch, by Elliott Smith) on the train because when I put them on I feel like I am sinking. This is when I start to get really scared. Does a few years of bad decisions mean that I will live with this hunger forever?

I am throwing darts with my husband, I am doing a jigsaw puzzle, I am driving my friends to the bar, I am on the train home from work, I am walking my daughter and her cousin to the park, I am revising an expert report, I am on the phone with my boss, I have strep throat and am sick as a dog, I am at a baby shower, I am counting the days until I can take a pregnancy test: I am drunk and no one knows. I am glued to the window above my kitchen sink staring into the mass of vegetation behind my house. The last green thing died a few weeks ago and I could’ve sworn I saw a coyote slinking behind a row of bare trees, but my husband doesn’t believe me. I don’t know if I believe me.

This October, I am ten months sober. I am working an active program to recover and repair the havoc that addiction wreaked on my psyche. I am nourishing a budding spiritual life, after years of starving and then bludgeoning the one that Mormonism gave me. 

I spent this Sunday sprawled on the sun-warmed wood floor of my friends’ apartment like a cat, playing with my daughter, making goo goo eyes at their baby, and laughing at my husband’s jokes. We drink coffee and pour over the details of their upcoming move to another state, which has me depressed, but the buzz of their anticipation is contagious and I know this is a good move for them.  I also know there is a prescription bottle of benzos in the bathroom medicine cabinet but I am keeping my hands off of it. Miraculously, I don’t know what’s in the kitchen cabinets or anywhere else and don’t think to look. I am at peace.

Autumn is still at it with her trickster hijinks, though. A few hours into our visit, we hear a light knock on the front door. I know before I know, because my friends live in a walk up and we don’t hear the buzzer, that it is the downstairs neighbors, the childless hipster couple that hosted a co-ed baby shower for our friends last November. The door swings open and I slip back to the place I was the first time I met them, at the baby shower, when my brain was circling the drain, when my anxiety had me curling in on myself and burning up with shame. In a moment, I am pacing this couple’s first floor apartment, which is artfully layered with plants and paintings and cat memorabilia that is somehow not tacky, and is laid out shotgun style so that I can dart into the dining room and finish the dregs of a few bottles of champagne while the guests are making onesies in the living room and then, when somebody wanders in for food, disappear into the kitchen to dissolve in self-loathing. 

Last year, after the shower, I drove my family home and spent the rest of the day agitated, anxious, and insane.

This weekend, the spectre of those same feelings rose up in my chest when this couple stepped into my perfect day and I found myself wanting to disappear into the bathroom, the kitchen, a disappointing high all over again.

[I love this memory because it lends credence to the stories I need to tell myself to stay sober: (1) I am constitutionally incapable of drinking like a normal person, without lying, without hiding, and without shame; and (2) I can’t manage my life when I am drinking–I either have too much or not enough and and up feeling fucked either way. 

I hate this memory because it is so pathetic it makes my skin crawl.]

When I talk about addiction, I often refer to it as a black hole. Sometimes it is sticky, other times it is gaping, always it is in the context of how I scraped my way out. 

But the truth is, when I think about my addiction, there are times when it the memory of it feels more like a safe corner. A heavy blanket. A womb. And while the gravity of the thing is relative, the pull is never stronger than in autumn. The world goes gray, the veil between past and present thins, and I forget where I am or why anybody would ever want to leave the place that is warm and close and easy.

The difference between this fall and all the others is that this time I tied a thick rope around my waist and told somebody to make sure to pull me back.

What Am I Afraid Of?

Now that I am consistently attending the same recovery meetings with the same core group of people, it is becoming increasingly clear that, as much as I love the changes that have occurred in my life since I committed to a specific program for recovery, I remain somewhat ambivalent about the logistics of that program. I haven’t formally “worked” the steps (although I feel comfortable saying I’ve done some version of the first three). I don’t have a sponsor. I don’t do service work. I’ve never picked up the phone. I haven’t shared my story with another member (except in bits and pieces at meetings). I just started reading the Big Book. 

I don’t have any philosophical reservations about these aspects of the program. I don’t question that I could seriously benefit from them, and maybe even need them if I want this run at sobriety to stick. Even if I don’t need them, I want them. I do.

But I am scared to do them. I am scared that if I immerse myself in the program, delve into the literaure, open up to the people in it, I will discover that I don’t belong. I fear that my nagging insecurity that I am not good enough, or, in this case, that I am not bad enough, will be confirmed. 

Every time I read or hear something that challenges my belief that I am truly like other people in the program–in the Big Book, on the internet, at a meeting–old anxiety rises up, squeezing my chest, constricting my throat. 

It is the same feeling I got when Nick G. said that members of the LDS church who support gay marriage aren’t really Mormon. 

It is the same feeling I got when I read a comment on a feminist website saying that Mormons aren’t Christians.

It is the same feeling I get every time somebody questions the reality of my experiences or the accuracy of my perceptions (especially the ones that are already fuzzy): 

When Sarah and Ben referred to my being raped as a “fling”; 

When Stephen said that men and women are equal recipients of the “can’t have it all” rhetoric; 

When John said it was sexist for me to be nervous about being alone in a dark alley with a man but not a woman; 

When my therapist said “but it doesn’t seem like you drank that much.

I don’t care for this feeling, but I am strong today, so I finger the bruise, push a little harder. I learn that this particular wound is shot through with shades of hurt and rejection that are not unlike: 

The feeling I got when the Millers passed me and my daughter in the grass on the way to Heidi and Bob’s house for dinner, having never been invited over ourselves;

The feeling I got when Jake asked if my daughter was going to a birthday party that we’d heard nothing about;

The feeling I got when I realized I was dropped from the group text that’s always going back and forth between the moms in my neighborhood;

The feeling I got when a man at the LDS church let a door swing shut in my face as I was carrying my daughter through and then denied it happened when his wife pointed out how rude he was;

The feeling I got when a woman at the Unitarian church told me I should have taken my wiggly girl outside during the service because we were a distraction.

What am I afraid will happen if I tell my story at a meeting or to a sponsor and someone thinks I don’t qualify for a seat in the rooms?

At first I thought I was afraid that I would drink again. That is sort of true. I really don’t want to drink again, but that’s just how I feel today. 

What’s more true is that, with or without the program, I can’t go back to how I was. It is not an option. What I am really afraid of  is having to do this thing–learning to live a sober life–alone.

Need Versus Want Versus Deserve

One of my first big steps toward recovery was making an appointment with a counselor. Initially, I tried to find somebody whose experience spoke directly to my very special and unique circumstances. My first run at sobriety through a twelve-step program left me convinced that I was different (better) than the folks who needed God and daily meetings and inane “literature” to keep clean. In reaction to this, and in a simultaneous act of desperation and ego, I sent my first inquiry out to a woman who advertised herself as specializing in working with “high functioning” individuals seeking to address career-related anxiety. I considered it a bonus that she specialized in career transitions as I was convinced that the bulk of my problems emanated from my insanely high pressure job. I pretended that I liked the fact that she was herself in the process of transitioning from counselor to bona fide life coach, even though that struck me as if not a red flag, then at least a pink one.

I also searched for counselors That specialized in substance abuse, but not, like, serious substance abuse. I was only drinking except for that one time in February when I took what was left of the hydrocodone from my c-section because I was annoyed at my husband and spent the next day ransacking medicine cabinets until I broke down and realized I needed to get myself a dealer, a prescription, or into an NA meeting (they are right when they say you don’t realize you are an addict until the drugs run out). I pretended not to notice that many of the addiction counselors that I found online specialized in something called “harm reduction,” which is the clinical term for “drinking less, but still drinking (thank God).” I pretended not to notice the crawling in my arms, the way my insides lurched in anticipation when I read those words, which I took as permission. Nothing red about those flags flapping furiously in the wake of my denial.

In the end, the high end life coach didn’t have any openings and the addiction specialists worked across town and I ended up going with the first local counselor who saw clients late into the evening, because as a full-time working parent of a young child, that was the only time I had. I made the call from the back porch, whispering into the phone because I didn’t want my neighbors to overhear. I told her I was anxious all the time and afraid of falling back into old, dangerous habits. She told me she could help. I booked five days out and cried with relief into the cool autumn air.

By the time I made it to the appointment I was high out of my mind and couldn’t look the counselor in the eye. At her suggestion, we walked up and down Lake Michigan and I told her, in halting, unemotional tones, what was going on. I told her about my long hours and my toxic co-workers and my dead dog and my oppressive religion and my transgressive marriage to a non-Mormon and my clingy toddler. I told her about my expectation that I would be perfect in all aspects my life, explaining that it was not as unreasonable as it sounded because I’d pulled it off pretty well for 30 years. I told her how the anxiety started in my head and worked its way into my chest until I was on the verge of panic. I told her how the depression started in my chest and worked its way into my head until I was on the verge of tears. I told her I didn’t know what to do.

When I finished unloading, the counselor said a few things that stuck. She said that she was not surprised that I got high. She said that I was burning the candle at both ends for my family and my job but that I wasn’t doing anything for me. She told me I needed some new coping mechanisms. Together, we came up with an action plan that looked something like this:

  1. Go to bed early.
  2. Stop looking at my phone before bed.
  3. Exercise.
  4. Join a mom’s basketball league.
  5. Meditate.
  6. Start a blog.

That’s right. I paid a counselor $150 an hour to fix my brain and came out with a list of New Year’s resolutions.

As with any list of resolutions, this one needed a bit of tweaking. I never could muster the nerve to play basketball with a group of stranger moms, particularly since I had it on good authority that at least one of the moms was a former collegiate player, so I decided to train for a race instead. I never made it past the first meditation session using the Headspace app, so I ditched developing a regular meditation practice in favor occasionally reminding myself to breathe.

For the next few months, I treated this list like a prescription, and the items on it like medicine, because that’s what they were. I dutifully turned off the TV after a single episode of Walking Dead and went upstairs at 10 PM. I stopped asking myself if I had time to go to the gym and just went. I submitted a proposal for a blog on women’s issues to a local collective and forced out content for content’s sake. If you’d asked me before I went to therapy whether I had time for myself, I would have laughed. Sure, if you count trying to see how much work I can cram into my 25 minute train rides to and from work and playing LEGO with my two-year-old as time for myself. I wanted to read fiction and write essays and play music and run along the lake, but somewhere along the line I convinced myself that I didn’t deserve to do the things that made me come alive unless they were in the service of my employer or my family. I’d bought into the idea that women can’t have it all, that by having a good job and a happy family I was already taking too much, and that if I dared to ask for more I’d lose it all. By re-framing my dumb hobbies as mechanisms for coping with anxiety that was driving me to self-destruct, my counselor took want and deserve out of the equation. As she pointed out, I wouldn’t be able to do my big job or take care of my family if I went to rehab. I made time to read and write and run because I had to.

The other thing my counselor recommended is that I go to recovery meetings. She started with gentle suggestions, emailing me dates and times of meetings vouched for by her colleagues, meetings with professionals, other lawyers, women. After yet another lapse, one that left me so sick I was begging my husband to take me to the hospital and finally willing to do anything to stop ingesting poison, my counselor gave me the gift of telling me that it was time to get serious about finding a recovery community. I’d tried to stay sober myself and failed. I needed help.

I balked. I questioned whether I could call myself an alcoholic. I questioned whether I had time. When the memory of the last hangover receded into the distance, I questioned whether I still needed to go to what I perceived as the extreme lengths of taking time out of my busy schedule to sit in musty rooms listening drunks read from an outdated book, listening to drunks talk about their problems, holding hands with drunks, listening to drunks recite the Lord’s prayer. That’s how I described the experience of participating in AA when I was convincing myself I wasn’t sick enough to continue with the program. During these negotiations with myself, I discounted the way I felt every time I walked out of a meeting, which was always, inevitably, without fail, better than I felt going in. Meetings made me feel lighter, seen, renewed. The truth was that I liked stepping outside of my routine, which had become staid and soul-sucking. I liked listening to people work through their shit. I liked thinking about how to live a better life. I especially liked the drunks, who showed me that I was not insane, or at least that I was not alone in my particular brand of insanity. And oh how I envied people who dropped casual references to home group and who laughingly confessed to being kicked in the ass by a sponsor, which told me that I did want a recovery community, and badly.

As usual, as a woman, a Mormon, a mom, a martyr to the end, wanting it wasn’t enough. Want didn’t justify tucking my kid into bed early to make a 7:30 meeting for young people on Thursday night or losing an hour better spent billing to check in with a Monday nooners group. And, it turned out that need wasn’t enough either, at least not after a decade spent hiding from the truth, lying to myself about what it is that I really need.

A close call and a sobriety angel cleared things up. I posted a cry for help in an online group for women working toward sobriety. I owned up to needing an IRL community, and whined that I had no time to attend meetings. A serious wise woman weighed in.

First, she handed down some knowledge. She said, “For years, I used drinking to hold together an unsustainable life. Like duct tape. When I took alcohol out of the equation, something had to give.”

Next, she put me in my place. She said, “I have two kids and a high pressure job and I go to six meetings a week. Anybody that is not okay with me taking the hour a day I need to not drink myself to death can fuck off.”

In the end, she made me cry. She said, ” You deserve a life that isn’t killing you.”

She was right, of course. This is both obvious and revolutionary. Within days, I found a meeting that I loved, that I attend and look forward to as often as I can up to three times a week.

I deserve to take 30 minutes to run a few miles because I want to move my body, not because I need it to quell the anxiety that makes me slam doors and scream at my family.

I deserve a job that does not require me to sacrifice my sanity, my safety, and my health at the alter of the billable hour and client service.

I deserve an elevated life in which I deal in wants not needs, in which I do the things I like because I like them, not because I need them to cope.

I deserve to feel like I want to live instead of like I need to die. 

Anybody that is not okay with me doing what it takes to shape that life (including, mostly, myself) can take a seat.

Drinking Cough Syrup With Jane Lynch

I’ve been listener of the WTF with Marc Maron Podcast for years now. My comedy-loving husband turned me onto it when I was training for a marathon and burned through the back catalog of This American Life. I dig the long format interviews, and how open Maron’s guests are, especially when the guests are entertainers of the regular famous (as opposed to the super famous) variety. Maron is open about being in long-term recovery from drug and alcohol addiction and some of my favorite episodes are the ones with guests who are also sober. Like a lot of people who go on to get sober, I kept close tabs on what other people were drinking, how much, and when, and even closer tabs on the people who weren’t. Like another sobriety blogger said of sober people in her periphery:

These are people who may or may not even remember me, and yet I secretly follow what they post to social media like they’re celebrities.  They’re on my team, whether they know it or not.  Occasionally I can tell that someone’s started drinking again, and I feel a sense of loss for these near-strangers.  Our secret army has lost a comrade.

I did the same thing, with regular people, and also with celebrities. I was fascinated by anybody who had decided to leave the party. I wanted to know everything about them. And listening to not one but two famous (or famous-ish) sober people talk about substance abuse and recovery on WTF was so interesting it felt almost illicit.

These days, I’m pretty burned out on podcasts, but I will tune into WTF for female guests or for episodes that come highly recommended. Recently, Maron had the hilarious Jane Lynch, of Glee and Best in Show fame. Lynch is one of those actresses who seems to be everywhere, and indeed she has been in dozens of other productions, from theater, to film, to TV (including my personal favorite, the brilliant and entirely too short lived Party Down) but I knew almost nothing about her personal life, so I was excited to listen to the interview during my morning commute.

I was interested to learn that Lynch got her start in Chicago at the Steppenwolf Theatre, which I’ve never been to because I’m not actually into theater at all, but which I have seen through the window of the brown and purple lines many times as the train crawls north after pitching around Sedgwick to Halstead in a move that always leaves me a little wobbly for the rest of the ride. About halfway through the interview, Maron dropped a few questions about what her drinking was like in the early days of her career, how bad it got, and whether it was related to the fact that she was more or less closeted at the time. It struck me as fairly awkward, as Lynch hadn’t said a word about drinking or about her sexuality at that point in the interview, and though Lynch was an open and gracious guest, Maron didn’t get much traction with that line of questioning.

At that point, I arrived at my office, turned off the podcast, and decided to do a little light Googling before digging into work. “Jane Lynch” and sober. Ah, I see. I gathered pretty quickly that Lynch got sober at 31, while she was still working in theater, and shared some of her story in Happy Accidents, her memoir that came out a few years ago. Unsurprisingly, the entertainment press picked up on the “story” (in quotes because the events that led Lynch to get sober had occurred two decades ago at that point) and ran with it, splashing salacious headlines over gossipy ledes and blurbs from her book.

A few aspects of Lynch’s story stood out to me, mostly because I identified with them:

  • Her bottom was not spectacularly dramatic (“First, I drank only Miller Lite. Second, many of my contemporaries drank far more than I and were fine with themselves and their lives. They did not suffer it the way I did.”);
  • She seems sensitive to this fact (“Relatively speaking, my personal bottom was rather benign.” “Had I know I’d be telling my story over and over again, I would have made it a lot better.”);
  • She nonetheless knew she had to quit (“[W]hen I stopped, I had reached my limit. I knew that my mind, body, and spirit had just had it.”);
  • She drank NyQuil before bed for a period of time after she quit drinking but before she went into a recovery program (“I’d close the drapes of my tiny room, take a swig of NyQuil, toast with a simple ‘Bye-bye,’ and go into a deep sleep.”).

(Sources: The Fix, People, and Perez Hilton.)   I get all of that. I have “drunkalogue envy.” I have imposter syndrome in recovery as much as work. Even after the knowledge that I had to quit was seared onto my consciousness, I dedicated an unreasonable amount of time searching for the elusive third door. (Is it around back? Near the cellar?)  (Hat Tip: Laura McKowen.) Abusing low rent prescription and non-prescription drugs was my gateway into and out of addiction.

So I feel a bit of a kinship with Jane Lynch having read all of this. We’ve walked the same roads, and look where she ended up! Content. Fulfilled. (Rich.) Okay.

An ad pops up on my office computer and I realize I’ve spent too much time on garbage sites. I get to work.

I listen to the rest of the podcast on the way home, picking up where I left off with Maron digging just a little on the subject of her sobriety.

“I’m still…I’m having a glass of wine…but I mean, it’s 25 years, so I think I’m gonna be fine.”

Record scratch.

What makes a person who has been sober for 25 years start drinking?

How does a person who went public with their sobriety only a few years ago act like that’s not a big deal?

How can a person who got sober with AA imply that a drinking problem can just dissolve, if you give it enough time?

The notion that moderation is both achievable and sustainable for a person who has suffered from alcohol addiction is completely at odds with my understanding of twelve step programs. And look, AA hasn’t been an integral part of my path, so I don’t get too broken up when people deviate from it, but it’s still weird, right?

What’s more troubling for me is the crack of light seeping in from the back door that Lynch’s words opened up in my brain. When I was toying around with getting sober playing Russian roulette with my life last year, I kept going back to the idea of sobriety as a “for now” thing. I need to be sober as long as my daughter is young. I need to be sober as long as my husband and I are trying to have another kid. I need to be sober until I get my mental health back on track. Lifelong sobriety sounded like a drag at best, so I nurtured escapist daydreams of myself at 45, drinking an IPA on the porch while my teenage kids are out with their friends, myself at 50, smoking a joint, also on the porch, myself at 65, retired, kids grown, finally free to flip the switch on my latent pill addiction and spend the day nodding off. Okay, that last one is kind of fucked up. Even my moderation fantasies veer off the rails.

When I finally admitted to my counselor that I couldn’t drink safely, I paused and added, “Maybe someday . . . .” She shot back, “Or maybe not. It doesn’t sound like you’ve ever had a healthy relationship with substances.”

“Oh. Right.”

With that, I slammed the door on the last of my reservations, stopped entertaining the idea that this particular aspect of my psychology will ever be “cured,” and haven’t picked up since.

Enter Jane Lynch, breathing life into my dormant daydreams, with her breezy talk of domestic contentment and creative fulfillment and glasses of wine. It sounds so lovely, especially that last bit. And her point about not living your life based on things that happened a quarter century ago is compelling. Maybe time will work the same magic tricks for me as it did for Lynch. Maybe time will work its magic faster for me. There is nothing special about 25 years. I’m feeling great today. Healthy, content, fulfilled. Maybe I can have a glass, too.

I suspect that many newly sober people find themselves standing on this same precipice, peering into the same black chasm, when they encounter somebody who used to have a drinking problem but doesn’t anymore, when they read a trend piece touting the benefits of moderation or trashing AA’s abstinence model, or when they watch a person in long-term recovery go back out. It is destabilizing. It feels weak to admit that, almost embarrassing. I mean, who is Jane Lynch to me anyway? Why should the fact that she can apparently drink change what I know about myself? What does it say about me that I am so easily swayed? It says I haven’t got my sea legs.

Briefly, I wonder what Lynch has given any thought to how her words might sound to a 31 year old girl with six months under her belt, drunkalogue envy, and a restless spirit. I wonder if I should write her a letter. Then I remember that this is old behavior, grasping and manipulative. I don’t like the way it feels.

When I was Mormon, suffocated by the church’s teachings about women but lacking institutional power, I thought I could leverage my emotions to achieve policy change. I thought that if I could just convey the depth of my pain, a church full of such well-meaning people would do anything to make it right. I marched in parades, pleaded with other Mormons, and wrote angsty blog posts. I deluded myself into thinking that this would make a worldwide religion change its foundational doctrines.

Spoiler: it didn’t work. And exploiting myself in an effort to change an institution that wasn’t interested in changing ate away at my self-worth.

The idea of writing a letter to Jane Lynch telling her that her WTF interview made me want to drink cough syrup (in a not-so-subtle attempt to force her back into sobriety because that would somehow make things easier for  me) feels a lot like being a Mormon feminist. Futile. Misguided. Insane.

I said before that the twelve step programs have not played a huge rule in my recovery, and it’s true, they haven’t, though that may change down the line. However, one of the things I’ve noticed in the rooms is that people talk about whether something is worth picking up–drinking or using–over. And let me tell you, people in recovery are some of the most resilient people I’ve ever encountered, often under brutal circumstances. I’ve seen people not pick up over  lost jobs, crumbling relationships, divorce, addicted and estranged family members, cancer, and death. One of the cool things about sobriety and, frankly, adulthood, is that you get to decide what kind of person you want to be and then actually be that kind of person, just by making the choices that kind of person makes. It’s that simple.

I may not want to be the kind of person who doesn’t drink 100% of the time, but I sure as shit don’t want to be the kind of person who drinks over a ten second glimpse into a celebrity’s life that I heard on a freaking podcast. So I won’t.

Wake Up, Girl

The shrieking preacher man is a staple of the American college experience. Wherever people gather, on the mall, in the quad, you’ll find him, waving his arms and shouting about the Lord. At the big state school where I went for undergrad, the resident Jesus freak occupied a grassy knoll near Modern Languages, on top of the underground Integrated Learning Center. I was boozing too hard to go to church on Sunday mornings, but I felt that it was my duty as a believer to hear him out, so I spent an afternoon early in first semester sitting on the lawn smoking clove cigarettes and listening to him rail. I got lucky; he was telling his salvation story that day. As he told it, he was high on LSD and the flames were everywhere, coming up from the mouth of hell, until the heavens split and Jesus came to him in a beam of light and told him that God would save him from all that pain and destruction, that God had already saved him and that all he needed to do was to carry this good news to the rest of the heathens.

Of course, this is a familiar trope. At the time, though, despite being both a Christian and a big fan of drugs, I found this story ridiculous. As I saw it, God doesn’t talk to people who are stoned and you don’t flip your life upside down on the basis of a hallucination. Also, I didn’t think God would ever be so cruel as to consign one of his children to the fate of a scorned sidewalk preacher. Even so, I sensed a kinship with this strange preacher man to the point that I felt betrayed a few months later when he showed up at his usual spot with a picket sign listing all of the different people who were going straight to hell if they didn’t repent asap and saw “Mormons” scrawled in black marker in between devil worshipers and abortionists. “Fine,” I huffed to myself. “I didn’t like the Jesus you were peddling anyway.”

Although I was skeptical of drug-induced God visions, I did believe that God spoke to sinners. Not just the low-impact sinners, the white liars and the coveters who were mostly trying to do right by God, but also the folks crawling around in the muck not even thinking about divinity or purpose or being a decent human being. There is Mormon precedent for this. God sent an angel to Laman and Lemuel, the prophet Nephi’s shitty older brothers, while they were beating their brothers with a stick. God grabbed Laman and Lemuel by the shoulders and shook when they tried to stop Nephi from taking their family to the promised land. He sent His prophets, His visionaries, His loyal-to-the end disciples, His ride-or-dies into the heart of the most wicked communities and used them as His mouthpiece to call the worst of the worst–the rapists and murderers, even–to repentance.

Like most Mormon kids, I grew up identifying with the good guys,  not the sinners. I was Nephi, born of goodly parents, not Laman and Lemual, who were predisposed to murmur (that’s Book of Mormon-speak for “bitch and whine”) and never seemed to learn.

Until the day God grabbed me by the shoulders and shook hard. I was 22, hungover, head foggy. I had just started law school and was overwhelmed with the sheer amount of work, as well as with all the ways I saw myself failing to stack up against my classmates. My long-distance relationship felt like work. I didn’t know how to make friends. I knew drinking wouldn’t fix any of thix, but I was doing it anyway. I was on a low, low road.

I felt so sad I opened the Book of Mormon and spread it out on my lap, because that’s what Mormons do when they do they don’t know where else to go. I was stuck in the beginning of the book, like always. That day, I was reading Lehi’s deathbed speech. Lehi is the Book of Mormon prophet who dragged his family out of Jerusalem into the wilderness, leaving all of their wordly possessions behind, and then set them sailing on a big boat to the Americas on account of a dream he had about a very special tree. In her more human moments, his wife Sariah called him a visionary man, and she didn’t mean in a Steve Jobs way. Lehi was also Laman and Lemual’s dad, who caused him no end of grief, what with their whining about life in the desert and trying to kill their younger brother. Lehi, like any parent, worried for his oldest sons and spent his final days just  begging them to get their shit together. He said:

13 O that ye would awake; awake from a deep sleep, yea, even from the sleep of hell, and shake off the awful chains by which ye are bound, which are the chains which bind the children of men, that they are carried away captive down to the eternal gulf of misery and woe.

14 Awake! and arise from the dust, and hear the words of a trembling parent, whose limbs ye must soon lay down in the cold and silent grave, from whence no traveler can return; a few more days and I go the way of all the earth.

These verses come early enough in the Book of Mormon that I must have read them dozens of times since childhood, and they’d never given me pause before. Hellfire and brimstone did not feature prominently in the Mormonism I grew up with, and I tended to skim those parts on account of their being “boring” and “not real.”

This time, though, for whatever reason–maybe because I was tired of nursing low grade hangovers or maybe because I was tired of making the same less than stellar decisions over and over again–the words stood out, piercing through the fog in my head like a beam from a lighthouse.

I knew God was talking to me.

That sounds trite, so let me try again:

I knew from the expansive warmth in my chest, the sensation of peace in the wake of anxiety, that God was talking to me.

And, because people are often confused about what it means to know something in a spiritual sense, let me try one more time:

I knew God was talking to me on a level that did not require Lehi to be a prophet with a direct channel to God, that did not require Lehi to be a real person, hell, that did not require Joseph Smith to be a prophet or even an honest person. These words, whatever their origin, whatever they would go on to do next, were, in that moment, intended to jolt me awake.

I didn’t wake up just then. I didn’t shake off the dust, let alone the chains. I didn’t see my relationship with alcohol for what it was: a prison. I did open my eyes. I opened them wide enough to see that I had wandered so far off that path that I could no longer claim to be Nephi, the son so obedient he chopped off a man’s head because he thought God wanted him to do it. Instead, I saw that I was Laman and Lemual: oblivious, lascivious, asleep.

Waking up without an alarm isn’t always easy, though. I spent the next few years slipping in and out of consciousness, walking between waking life and dream. I put myself through the gauntlet of milestone after milestone: I graduated from law school. I got married. I worked. I questioned my faith. I had a baby.

That sounds too easy, so let me try again:

I spent three years treading water at one of the best law schools in the country after a lifetime of being a big fish in a small pond, and came out with a degree, a formidable skill set, and a nasty case of imposter syndrome. I married outside of the religious tradition I grew up with and, in the process, broke my parents’ hearts and shattered my childhood illusion of what a marriage looks like. I graduated in the worst recession the US legal market has ever seen, and built a thriving career anyway. Breaking with convention by marrying outside of the church and working full-time opened my eyes to the sexism in my church, and I started agitating for change. I grew another human inside my body for nine months, labored for 30+ hours to bring her into this world, and eventually consented to letting the doctors cut her out of me. There was so much blood.

The lighthouse swung its beam around and around. Sometimes it caught me square in the face and I righted myself, moving toward the light. Other times I was sunk too low to make it out. Still other times, I was having too good a time to discern much at all, Laman and Lemual once again. Even after God sent the angel, even after God shocked them into a temporary stupor, they sailed halfway around the world and spent half the boat ride partying while God roiled up an angry ocean to snap them back to reality, to remind them that they were on their way to the promised land, Me-damnit, that He needed them the focus for once in their lives.

Eventually, the dust from all those years of barreling into adulthood settled, and I surveyed the altered landscape of my life. I had an insane job with deadlines to meet and partners to please. I had sky-high city rent to pay and hungry mouths to feed. I had a cocktail of undiagnosed mental illness, postpartum depression and seasonal affective disorder and anxiety soaring through the roof. I had a shipwrecked faith.

That’s about the time I got my second divine wake up call, seven years after the first. I was 28, head foggy, running on fumes. I had just come back to my job after maternity leave and was overwhelmed with the sheer amount of work, as well as with all the ways I saw myself failing to stack up against the other associates. My marriage felt like work. I didn’t know how to make friends. I knew drinking wouldn’t fix any of this, but I was doing it anyway. I was on a low, low road.

I felt so sad I started praying, because that’s what Mormons do when they don’t know where else to go. I don’t know that my prayer was anything special. I didn’t get on my knees or clasp my hands or even close my eyes. I just looked down at my baby daughter, who I was nursing to sleep, and my wordless hope must have pierced the sky because two messages fell into my lap:

  1. I needed to stop treating God like that amorphous blob of love I read about in Proof of Heaven. God was real, concrete, and knew me.
  2. I needed to stop drinking, for real and for good. No more pussyfooting around.

The fog cleared. My heart unlocked. I saw, heard, tasted, smelled, felt the truth of these words with every sense. I woke up.

It still took me almost two years to get sober. In fact, I poured myself a drink that night. (An hour after the voice of God told me stop. And to think I denied being as obtuse Laman and Lemual. To think I said I wasn’t addicted.)  

Like I said, it’s hard to get going without an alarm. One thing I noticed when I started listening to people in recovery tell their stories is how many of them didn’t find God until they’d plumbed the depths of hell. Perversely, naively, I envied them. I thought it must be easier to give up drinking, or at least to identify alcohol as the poison that it is, when it leaves you with a life that’s only ugly. When I started piecing together my own story, I made a list of all of the terrible things that had happened to me when I was drinking, and I wondered why God hadn’t found me in the more wretched moments. Why didn’t he burn up a bush next to me when I was crawling around in the gutter on Drachmann Ave? Why didn’t he shake me awake when I was losing consciousness with strange men? Why didn’t he turn wine into water when my baby woke up early and started screaming for food and I made her wait for my blood alcohol content to go down instead of giving her formula because I am a good mom, okay? I like to think that if God had come to me then, I would have understood and dedicated the rest of my life to the ministry. If he’d come to me when I was high out of my mind, I might be a shrieking preacher calling drunk girls across America to the light, instead of an anxious lawyer, mired in self-doubt, publishing my story on a secret blog.

God still talks to me, by the way, even though I’ve started to slip back into imagining that he is a big shiny ball of love, instead of the flesh and bone visage Joseph Smith described. I don’t even like to call him he. Sometimes I use she, or they. Mostly, God’s words come in the form of inspiration, a sudden clearing of the mind and a thought thrust into my mind fully-formed from a source unknown. Recently, the message I found was this: 

I am lucky. I didn’t have to go to hell and back to get clean because I am lucky. I am lucky I heard God when I did because I needed eveything that happened to me to keep me on this path. I am lucky to have lived through addiction. Physically lucky, because that shit is deadly, but also spiritually lucky because recovery from that shit woke me up, and there is no going back to sleep. I heard what I heard. I know what I know. Tomorrow, I might know more or different, and that’s okay, because I’ll be here to find out what it is.