Saturday, October 31, 2015

ten years

Ten years ago, I sat hungover in the bath, sulky and self-pitying, and thought, "I've had my last drink."

I'd thought that before. Experimentally, of course: just to see what that thought would feel like as it wandered through my brain. Always a What if in front of it and a question mark following. And it always induced total panic. Scrambling, terrified, can't-let-this-happen, panic. Even at the end, when I wasn't drinking in public and so I was already having to deal with social events sober. Even when I was restricting myself to one night a month when I could drink. I had to know that that one night would come, to deal with all the others.

But that evening, in the tub, the thought sat solid in my mind and didn't frighten me. I let it sit, and after a while it had, not a period as the punctuation mark (hello hubris!), but perhaps an ellipsis. And I got out of the bath, and went to bed, and I got up the next morning and didn't drink that day. 3,653 days later, I have not had another drink.

It wasn't all puppies and rainbows, of course. Still isn't. I had to re-negotiate all my relationships, had to accept that it wasn't the booze making me petty and judgmental and envious, had to figure out which social events I could handle and which are, to this day, wicked triggers. The first puppy didn't come along for three years. I thought sobriety would solve the problems between my fiancĂ© and me, and so went ahead with the marriage, to both our griefs. I did drop twenty pounds in six months and my skin cleared up, but everything else came very slowly. A lot of it remains in process, and always will.

One of the tricks to staying sober is being clear-eyed enough about the person you were and the things you did while drinking to know that you don't want to be there again - while at the same time believing yourself to be worthwhile enough to deserve sobriety and the improvements in life that come with it. This is really, really hard. I live in a house where I've never had a drink, drive a car that I've never taken to a liquor store, and am married to a man who's never seen me with a drop of alcohol in my body. But some days I still think of myself as that person, at whom I'm so angry and in whom I'm so disappointed, and I know I don't deserve a thing.

When I think about it, I keep circling back to 1 Kings 19:11-12. 

And he said, Go forth and stand on the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake:

And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. 

My beliefs are private, so I'm not going to go into them here (though I think that you don't have to believe in anything in particular to recognize this as one of the most beautiful passages in the English language). But as a description of addiction and recovery, I could not find better than this.

For the first eighteen years of my life I was in large Southwestern public schools and I was the smart one, and then I was dropped into a tiny Eastern liberal arts college where everyone was smarter than I was. I opened my mouth roughly four times in my first-year English class, and four times I said something which made eyes roll all over the room, and my understanding of the world and my role in it collapsed. I couldn't answer questions about books correctly or intelligently, and the rest of my classes were even worse. The phrase "identity crisis" doesn't even touch it: it was like I'd woken up in someone else's head. And suddenly all I heard from my inner voice was You idiot. How could you not know that? How could you be so stupid? No one will ever like you. Heaven knows I'd had vile things to say to myself for years about my appearance and social anxiety, but never about my mind.

(You can understand why I get a bit defensive about it. One is supposed to have a reason for addiction that's more along the lines of "someone died / I was abused / horrific car accident", and not "I went to a really elite college and it made me feel stupid". But this is how it was.)

Somewhere along the line I made a desperate decision about who I would be, and it wasn't an actor or a writer or even a goofball - when I lost confidence in my academic abilities I lost confidence in everything else associated with my brain, talents and humor included. All I could come up with was the intense, crazy, wild girl, who was still quiet and shy during the day but with a few drinks in her danced like a dervish and went after the boys she wanted and dared anything. I couldn't think of anything else to be. I didn't like her, but I liked myself even less. I didn't like being her, but she got attention, and the only other version of me I knew had, I believed, disappeared. And as time went on, it took more than a few drinks to find that loud brave-terrified version of me, and finding her felt more crucial, and the downhill tumble began.

We get addicted to substances because (among other reasons) they seem to give us silence instead of the hectoring, hating voice we hear inside ourselves. They provide what feels like blissful oblivion. The moment you realize that what masquerades as silence is actually noise, the moment when the use starts making you feel worse instead of better, is a turning point. Not necessarily towards sobriety: after all, noise that drowns out what you don't want to think about is still better than thinking about it, in an addict's mind. Sure, you might feel worse drunk or high, but at least you are keeping that worse, along with all your other feelings, at arm's length. The trade-off seems worth it, for a while.

I sought myself, redemption, peace, grace, whatever I had no name for, in wind and earthquake and fire. I made everything louder and brighter and more furious, while staying numb and detached, and tried to find salvation in the blur and the noise. It was not in the wind, and not in the earthquake, and not in the fire.

After the fire, a still small voice. Years after, and often I cannot hear it for weeks at a time, when I don't let myself stop or hope, when I get mired in the old habits of self-deprecation and inadequacy. But it is there, at the core.

It can, however, be shaken by something like making a stupid typo in my Facebook post marking ten years of sobriety, and having that typo SIT THERE, ON THE INTERNET, for FIVE HOURS, before Berowne gently pointed it out. THIRTY WHOLE PEOPLE, all of whom are kindly inclined towards me, saw that typo before I corrected it, and I let the embarrassment of that outweigh any pride in ten years sober. There might even have been some crying in the car after work. So yesterday was soured for me, and I'm hoping that today I can actually be proud of myself.

There will always be a voice ready to say, "A mistake? An imperfection? You deserve no happiness and no one will ever like you." Nothing eradicates that entirely. But there is the still small voice too. There is that, reminding me that I can be insecure and flawed and still strong to my bones. Living in recovery is literally being a warrior for the working day, and, by the mass, my heart is in the trim.

(Unless, of course, I find a typo in this after I post it.)


  1. You have great courage. (And courage does not mean one is not frightened; it means one perseveres in the face of one's fears.)

  2. This is a beautiful post. And congratulations on ten years, bella!