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.
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.
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.
Earlier this summer I went camping in the woods in Northern Michigan with my husband, daughter, two friends of ours, and two friends of our friends. I like to think of myself as outdoorsy but the truth is it is more in theory than in practice. My hikes are more like toddler-friendly nature walks that clock in at 60 minutes or less and trips to botanic gardens in my neck of the woods are uniformly preceded by fancy brunch or sushi. The last time I went rustic camping was years and years ago, before I had my daughter, before I met my husband, and I spent the entire trip dangerously drunk and stoned, stumbling around in the dark doing things I’d like to say I don’t remember because it’s been a decade but in reality never remembered at all.
The summer–this one, with my family, not the hellish one I spent breathing fire way back when–has been jammed with work and joy and I had been so looking forward to getting away for a few days that it didn’t occur to me that camping might be a trigger. And then, about an hour after we arrived at our site and set up camp, our friends rolled in and cracked beers before they even set up their tent. They are serious campers but also serious beer drinkers. I felt instantly left out and a craving kicked in. I knew that feeling would intensify when the other couple showed up and the vibe morphed from family trip to party trip.
After we finished pitching the tent, my husband gave me a tour of the “kitchen” he set up in the trunk of our car. He opened the big insulated bag filled with smaller airtight bags of snacks, fruit, and sandwiches. He showed me the plastic bag containing utinsils, spices, and paper towels. He gestured to the cooler stocked with drinks. He warned me to steer clear of the liter-sized metal water bottle tucked near the spare tire. The liquid inside looked like water but reeked of ethanol. He told me it was Everclear, for starting the fire in the camp stove. He joked about the last time we’d spent the night in a tent together, at a music festival in the California desert, when we’d dumped half of the water bottles in the flat we had picked up at Costco and re-filled them with vodka and spent the entire weekend spitting mouthfuls of the stuff into the dirt, after accidentally gulping from the wrong bottle desperate from relief from the sweltering heat.
I laughed at the memory of our college stupidity, but carefully filed away the knowledge that there was a bottle of high alcohol content booze that would be poorly accounted for in our very own campsite. In the last months of my drinking, secretly chugging liquor straight from the bottle or, if I was not at home, a water bottle, was my MO. Armed with the comfort of a familiar (albeit fucked up) routine, my brain started re-writing our plan for the weekend. We’d still spend hours looking for petoskey stones on the beach and reading Stephen King by the fire, but we’d do it all tipsy and hope nobody noticed. I pushed away scary thoughts about how Everclear is a guaranteed blackout. I ignored nauseous memories of my last hangover. I figured I’d start after I put my kid to sleep in the tent.
We got the girl down as the sun was setting. And then, instead of hanging back at our site and drinking alone, in a moment of remarkable honesty and self-preservation, I told my husband that I was feeling shaky. He offered to drink fancy fizzy water with me and we carried a few cans to share around the campfire at our friends’ neighboring site. A few minutes later our friends’ friends, a couple, joined us. Right away, I noticed they were drinking Gatorade. They drank Gatorade the whole night. They laughed and told jokes and shared stories and were, by all accounts, cool as shit. I’d also noticed the two kayaks on top of their car and wondered if they were drinking Gatorade because they had to wake up early.
Sitting around the picnic table over breakfast the next morning, I learned that both of them were in long-term recovery. They met in the program. They had fifteen years apiece.
Over the course of the weekend, I learned that they are also kayakers and backpackers. They have tattoos and interesting haircuts and a hyper dog. They are funny and laid back and kind and generous. They were super nice to my daughter, making her pb&j and sneaking her gummy bears.
Immediately upon learning that this couple was sober, my brain was able to scrap our plans to make the trip sad and lonely and drunk. This couple reminded me that I want to be one of the clear-headed ones, that I am lucky to be one of the clear-headed ones, that this is actually the better path.
I am back to real life now, with a bag full of rocks (mostly ordinary-looking) that my kid found on the beach and just had to bring home, limbs full of bug bites, and a head full of memories. I am also actively planning my next escape to the woods again, instead of the bottom of a bottle.
Sometimes I feel like I’m as bad at recovery as I was at alcoholism. My drinking was at its worst in college for Crissake. Whose wasn’t? And even then, the worst part was not any of the ugly memories I conjure up when I want a taste of shame, but the slow leak of potential as my life deflated like a sad balloon. I don’t like to tell my drinking story because it is underwhelming: I drank myself sick and made bad choices and stopped until I forgot what a hangover felt like and then started again. Repeat ad nauseam.
My recovery story is underwhelming, too. There was no dramatic bottoming out. I knew it was going downhill, but I thought I had years ahead of me before I would have to give it up for good. There was no lightbulb moment. I already knew too much and had for too long. Perhaps the most disappointing part of my recovery is that I’m doing it without fanfare. I saw a therapist weekly at first, but I’ve graduated to monthly visits because I don’t have enough going on to fill our hour-long sessions. I exercise. I go to bed early. I go to church, sometimes. I pray, sometimes. God and I are just okay these days, after Mormonism. I write, when I have time. I call people never, though I do talk to my husband. I go to AA meetings, when I feel like I’m about to crawl out of my skin or open a bottle, which is less than once a week.
Which is how, at 81 days, I found myself at something like my sixth AA meeting. It was a well attended lunchtime meeting at the AA office downtown. The chair asked me to read and I said yes because why not. I wasn’t sure whether I had to read a certain part in the page, so I didn’t.. I guess I chose wrong, though, because after I finished, a man sitting next to me gently corrected me for skipping the part I’d wondered about. I hate shit like that. Insane perfectionism is why I drank in the first place. To feel better, I told myself that the only reason he pointed out my mistake was because he was one of those people whose life went so far off course that he needed extreme rigidity to stay sober. Not like me. I was barely a drunk, so I can play fast and loose with the program.
I don’t necessarily think I am wrong about that. I know enough sober people who don’t do AA to know that the only thing that matters is that I don’t drink. This man shared later that he did crack for over a decade. He said he needs to go to meetings every day because he drank and used like it was his full-time job. I don’t, because I didn’t.
I do think it was wrong to be so condescending, though. When the third person welcomed me to the meeting, it occurred to me that making a mistake that marked me as a newcomer could be a good thing. What do I get out of pretending like I’m further along this path than I am? Nothing. Actually, it probably hurts me. Trying to pass always does.
Later, as I was writing this down, it occurred to me that maybe the man who corrected me was just trying to be nice. Maybe he picked up on my obvious discomfort and decided to show me the ropes, to help me fit in. Or maybe he is an addict who likes to hear the sound of his own voice. Or maybe he is a human and he was trying to have a human connection, which is the reason I started going to meetings in the first place. Whatever the case, I can’t complain, because it would be ridiculous to expect that I can have other humans, with all of their kindness and humor and wisdom and charm, without also opening myself up to all of their messy awkwardness, their rudeness, their craziness, their thoughtlessness, and their guile. People are fucking weird, but sobriety is teaching me that’s what makes them fucking wonderful.