I love billboards because I love the highway because I love long road trips because I am a sucker for nostalgia. Nostalgia for an Americana that I never lived that maybe never existed is like a short cut to eliciting emotion about my own past, or maybe it’s more like a crispy clean saccharine coating for memories that are more complicated to process. We drove everywhere when I was a kid because we couldn’t afford to fly. There were too many of us and even before then there wasn’t money for plane tickets. So we drove through the mountains up to the pacific northwest to see one set of grandparents and we drove halfway across the country from the midwest to the southwest and back again to see another set of grandparents so many times and I loved every miserable moment of those trips. Robert and I drove too, in our early years, all over the desert, not because we couldn’t afford plane tickets but because we had nowhere to go. We used to pick destinations at random, for no reason. Let’s go to Wilcox! Let’s go to Casa Grande! Let’s go to Bisbee! Let’s go up to Phoenix for the state fair! It was on one of those trips that we saw the greatest billboard of my life, a campy horror-esque advertisement for THE THING. What THE THING was we had no idea, but we had to see it. The billboard told us we had to. And then we saw another billboard and another and another after that, each one announcing with increasing urgency that THE THING was drawing nearer. We followed the billboards, they were on the way to whatever small whatevertown we were headed to that day, but we would have blown right past our destination in search of THE THING if it had come to that. When we finally made it to the home of THE THING, one of those gas station/souvenir store outposts in the desert, we followed the signs to the back of the store and saw that we’d have to pay $2 for the thing. Robert lost all enthusiasm but there was no dampening mine, so I went in, and wandered through a labyrinth that wound well behind the store, marveling at all manner of chintzy artifacts and treasures but also walking quickly because I needed to get to the THE THING and finally I did and it was everything I ever dreamed.
Did you catch that episode of This American Life about the girl who got sober at 14? As she tells it, she has memories of filching wine at 5 and pouring a big glass of tequila at 9 and becoming an AA poster child shortly after completing a month of rehab at 13. She traded in the shock value hitting rock bottom so early throughout adolescence and early adulthood. She sponsored teenagers like her and adults she thought were like her by the dozen and inspired many more. True to the big book, she accepted responsibility for her actions and her addiction, refusing to lay any blame at the feet of her cruel and neglectful parents or unstable childhood to a point that seems like downright willful denial (she was raised in a cult, for Chrissake!). I don’t remember how she figured it out, because I could see the plot twist from the earliest moments of the episode, but of course she is not an alcoholic. She has no memories of actually abusing alcohol, just sipping incongruously large servings at shockingly young ages. Her mom committed her to an institution for 30 days purportedly for behavioral issues, but really because she wouldn’t let her daughter get away with attempting to call her parental bluff. She did the hard work of unpacking her troubled childhood and her journey to “recovery” with the first people who made her feel safe, and understood, and capable, and discovered that she is absolutely, perfectly capable of drinking in moderation. She even taps out after two glasses of wine because she gets too sleepy.
The trouble with self-diagnosed addiction at a young age is that you can’t trust the label to stick. You don’t know what’s normal. You can’t trust the memory of your experiences. You don’t know how much irrational behavior was due to your underdeveloped teenage brain or to the misfiring neurons of a junkie. What if you are fully capable of drinking like a normal person and you don’t know it because you never tried?
These questions are compounded when you’re talking about a squeaky clean born and bred Mormon girl who took her first drink at 17. Is the first part of the story, the descent, the typical preacher’s daughter trope? In Mormonism, everyone is a preacher’s kid, and binge drinking squealing off the rails is the natural result of growing up in a dry household, sheltered, with no examples of healthy, moderate alcohol consumption. Does the second part of the story, the recovery, merely reflect the uniquely Mormon tendency to label every tempting vice an addiction in order to avoid having to make tough moral choices? Is the goal of total abstention informed more by religious beliefs than by psychological necessity?
This is the shaky foundation of my sobriety story. I’m putting pen to paper in an attempt to answer these questions and rid myself of the seedy, nagging will to self-destruct that started me down this path in the first place.