1 ginger beer, 1 glass cyanide-looking tarragon flavored Russian soda pop, 1 glass vanilla orange Russian soda pop, 2 glasses liquid raspberry kompot, 1 shot bitters, 3 cups hot black tea, 1 non-alcoholic beer (to wash down the salted fish). No water. Not one sip of the beer, wine, champagne, vodka or cocktails that flowed for six hours straight.
This past Wednesday, January 29, 2019 marked three years since my last drank. I celebrated quietly, at home, not even making it to a meeting, on account of the Polar vortex that shut most of Chicago down for two days.
Today, February 1, 2019 marked a new day one. Not of sobriety, thank God. I joked darkly with my husband about warming up with some whiskey when our heater started to fail and it was nearing negative thirty degrees outside, but I didn’t actually take a drink. (If you’re wondering, he did not laugh at that joke, because husbands of alcoholics don’t laugh at jokes like that, and also because it was less of a joke than a testing of the waters, which, if we’re being honest, is just a symptom of an alcoholic mind.) Rather, after seven years at my last firm, today was my first day at a new job.
As far as day ones go, this one was not too different from early sobriety, insofar as it was both underwhelming and anxiety-producing and consisted almost entirely of waiting. The plan was for me to set up my new office and get oriented on my new computer in the morning and then spend the afternoon in training sessions. As it happened, when I arrived at my office, I discovered that all of my office equipment, including my computer, and the majority of my office furniture, were still in transit, again, on account of the Polar vortex. I unpacked a few office supplies, set up a desktop lamp and speakers, looked for an AA meeting, because I’ve learned that’s what you do when you don’t know what else to do, and then killed time twirling in my desk chair until I could leave for the meeting without being too early (because I’m a good AA member, but not that good). As it happened, when I arrived at the meeting at 11:50, I discovered that the meeting didn’t start until 12:30, so I planted my butt in a metal chair and waited forty minutes for the meeting to start. Back at the office, I took care of the logistical items I could, and then decided to head out for the day at 3:00, on account of there was nothing else for me to do. I planned to squeeze in a workout before getting home at 5:00. As it happened, the red and purple lines were significantly delayed due to mechanical failures, I’m guessing on account of the Polar vortex, and I ended up waiting over an hour at two different train stations before making it home at 5:00 with no workout at all. When I arrived at home, I discovered I’d missed the UPS delivery of my new computer by three minutes and I wouldn’t be able to pick it up until Monday afternoon (after all my rescheduled training sessions).
It is hard for me not to revert to old patterns of thinking and construe everything that happened today as a sign that this new job is going to be, if not a disaster, at least an unpleasant, anxiety-producing detour. I don’t subscribe to that kind of magical thinking anymore, though. Instead, I’m going to hope that this day one, like my last one, turns out to be the start of a journey, along a path varied with enough exhilarating highs to justify all the disappointing lows and a good deal of boring middle ground to keep me sane, but above all else takes me somewhere new.
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.”
You don’t grow up Christian in America without hearing a thing or twenty about the “straight and narrow” path. As a rebellious Mormon, I loathed this concept. I could imagine nothing more dreary and oppressive than a life spent following a road laid out by someone else, following orders, moving forever forward while looking longingly at the roads less travelled.
As a perfectionist who never could manage to live up to that trait, I hated the concept equally but for a different reason. A narrow path offered too many opportunities to fall off. I’d never make it, so better to never bother stepping on, better to pretend I never wanted anything to do with your stupid straight road anyway.
A few months after I stopped attending the Mormon church, I started hearing the phrase crop up in recovery meetings, usually from old timers describing how the path of sobriety narrows the longer they’re on it. This scared me. Had I stepped into a way of living that was going to end up feeling as oppressive as Mormonism?
Today, more than a year into this life, I found some clarity around this concept. The straight and narrow path isn’t the one laid down and blessed by the church. It’s the path that carries each of us forward. Once you’ve found purpose and direction, it becomes increasingly intolerable to live in a manner that is inconsistent with those things. Your mind and body and soul won’t tolerate straying for long. It’s too painful. When my mind wanders to relapse, my chest tightens. When I entertain the notion of going back to the old way of living for much longer than that, my cells start screaming apart. It’s not freedom; it’s chaos. The narrowing of the path is the price we pay for finding it. The cost of learning how to live is that you can’t stop doing it.
My road doesn’t pass through the same valleys as yours. Mine is a highway through the middle of the US. The road is mostly well-paved paved but it cuts a dusty path through the desert and winds through a few mountain towns.
Our roads don’t take us through the same cities or countries or churches. Some roads don’t have a church on them at all. They are all long, though, and I suspect that our maps are all the same. Do unto others. Love your neighbor. Lose yourself. And I’ll be damned if we don’t all end up in the same place.
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,
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.
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.