It’s an ordinary Tuesday – in the liminal hour of no longer afternoon, not quite evening. One of those glorious early summer days that makes you forget it was ever winter. There’s something magical about the light at that hour, at that time of year. It’s golden.
I’m not enjoying it, though. I am sitting in my Subaru, shivering and sweating.
I’m too early. I’m early for everything. Unless I don’t show at all. I never don’t show on purpose, but that doesn’t matter to the people I’m constantly letting down. They are almost as tired of me as I am. I try turning on the radio, but music is unbearable – if it’s happy, it makes me want to crawl out of my skin. If it’s sad, I feel like I’ll die.
Cars pull up around me and people walk toward the side door, greeting one another. They look… regular. They are the regularest looking people I have ever seen. Everybody is laughing and smiling. They can’t be here for the same reason I am. And if they are, what can they possibly be so happy about? I hate them. I mean, I actually hate them. I am so angry. I do not want to go in. There is nothing on earth I want less than to walk through that door and be with those people. Be one of those people. Why am I even here?
If I’m honest – and let’s be clear, I am not – it’s optics. If I do this, then people will believe I am trying. They all want me to try, which would be funny if anything was funny anymore. All I do is try. All day, every day. Trying is my full time job. Hand-to-God. I try and try and try. I try to control this beast. I always have a plan to manage things. I always have good intentions. I’ll just have one. Only on the weekends. Not til dinner. Not til after dinner. I’ll wait ’til everyone’s asleep. I’ll alternate with water. I’ll water it down. I’ll buy smaller bottles.
It is exhausting. I am exhausted. I am exhausting.
I keep trying to crack the code of how to engage with alcohol in a way that lets me breathe and numbs me out, but doesn’t tear me to shreds.
It’s like cuddling a shark. You can do it, but you’re gonna bleed.
I can’t go on like this for even one more day. I know that. I also know I absolutely cannot stop.
I don’t understand how both of those incompatible things can be true, but they are.
It’s impossible. It’s all impossible.
I texted a sober friend on my drive over and told her I was going to a meeting. She never texts back quickly, if at all- but like lightning her reply lit up my phone. ‘What kind of meeting?’ I laugh harshly. Fair question. She’s probably hoping it’s not Weight Watchers. When was the last time I ate? No idea. Food has no appeal. I’m not hungry. I’m never hungry anymore.
I am thirsty.
I’m dying of thirst. Oh my God, I want a drink. I have never wanted anything more in my entire life.
I go to text her back and I keep messing it up. Typing with a splitting headache and shaky hands is a challenge. I tell her what kind of meeting. And I tell her I am terrified. It’s the first honest thing I have said in a while. It feels strange to tell the truth. I’m not even sure why I texted her. I regret it. She responds,
She’s wrong. These are not my people.
I don’t even know what to be scared of. The truth? That it won’t work? That it will?
I look in the rear view mirror and can just make out the spiderweb of burst capillaries under my heavy makeup, but only because I know what to look for. Most people will happily accept a mask, and mine is pretty close to flawless. I’ve gotten really good at this. My lips are chapped under my lip gloss. I’m so dehydrated. I look down at my nails. The navy blue polish is chipped and one of them is broken way down low. I don’t remember how it happened. It hurts- but then, so does everything else.
Looking in the mirror, I’m reminded of that moment right after last call when the bartender flips on the unforgiving overhead lights as a signal that people need to finish their drink and get the hell out. It’s a rough moment. Bars are dark for a reason. If I had a few drinks in me, I’d think I looked fine. Good even. But I don’t.
I consider leaving. There’s a package store right down the street. I could go get a bottle of wine and head to the beach. I can just say I went to the meeting. I just need a little so my hands will stop shaking. I can’t risk being seen, though. I think I have to stay. Jesus. How is this my life?
I’ll wait one more minute. I don’t want to talk to anyone. I’ll sit in the back. I look down at the phone in my hand and it’s shaking. I don’t know if it’s fear or the tremors I get every time I go for too long without a drink. Maybe I don’t have to choose. I press the side button to see the time. The screen says:
The meeting starts at 5:30. I don’t want to go in late and have people stare. I walk the walk of the condemned. I pause in the doorway, hovering between two worlds. I cannot bear to think about yesterday and I cannot fathom what tomorrow will bring. I walk into a room filled with people sitting in a circle of folding chairs. Slogans and bible verses adorn the walls. I’m immediately suspicious. Are these people just going to preach and throw bumper sticker wisdom at me? I can’t.
I’d planned to hide in the back but there is no back. I remember what the pastor at my former church always said: circles are better than rows. Well, Pastor Tim – not today, they aren’t. Maybe I’ll leave. A blonde woman swoops down on me, asks me if I’m new, and tells me to sit next to her. Shit. Everyone is smiling at me. Seriously.
There’s something wrong with my chair. When I shift my weight it tilts suddenly to one side. My reaction to the minor wobble is disproportionate. My heart pounds and I feel the surge of adrenaline usually reserved for more serious stumbles. I try to figure out how to balance it but ultimately surrender to feeling unsteady. I should be used to it. We’re both a little busted up, this chair and I.
They go around the circle, and the dread rises in my throat. I know what I’m supposed to say, but I have never said it. I’ve known it for a long time. If I say it, though, it’s real. If I say it, it’s true. If I say it, everyone is right. If I say it. If. I want to leave. I want to scream.
I want to drink. I just want to drink.
It’s finally my turn. I feel the hot, sick tug of shame and say,
My name is Laura. I’m an alcoholic.
I start crying. It feels like the end.
When I was newly sober and going to meetings, I never got the coins some recovery communities give out to denote lengths of time in sobriety. I don’t know why, exactly. Maybe I wasn’t sure I was staying. Maybe I was afraid to jinx it. Maybe I was an asshole. Why choose, really? An uncommitted, superstitious asshole.
Then one day a woman came up to me and mentioned that she noticed I wasn’t getting them. Those rooms are full of noticers. She asked me if I was drinking. I said no. I made my excuses. I think I said something about not feeling like I’d earned it yet and she looked at me and said, not unkindly, But, it’s not about you.
If you’ve ever met someone in early recovery, you understand that this was brand new information.
She went on to explain that if I had sixty days and someone was there for their first meeting, it might give them hope. That made sense to me. I remember being unimpressed by people who had 30 years because I was certain they were lying or that their problem hadn’t been as bad as mine or they were a saint of some kind, like Mother Theresa or Dolly Parton.
But someone who had a month? Or two? They were like demigods to me.
When you are newly sober, a day is an eternity. A week is a miracle. A month? I was sure it was impossible. I never worried about reaching a year because I knew I couldn’t. But then day by day, week by week, year after year, you just keep showing up for life until you have one again.
Today, on day 2922, I know that ordinary, extraordinary summer afternoon was the beginning.
Eight years, but who’s counting?
Me. I’m counting.
The number eight turned on its side is the symbol for infinity. That’s what it feels like is being asked of you in those early days. All you can think about is never getting to drink again. Saying no to a million drinks. A lifetime of not drinking. Forever. And the thing about forever is that it’s such a long time.
And it is, if you’re lucky. But it’s forever, one day at a time. I don’t have to worry about a million drinks. Just one. I just say no to the first one, and the world opens up to me. I don’t have to worry about tomorrow, just today. I just don’t drink today.
When I Googled the number eight, I learned that it symbolizes the ability to make decisions, harmony, balance, and abundance. That feels right. This has been a challenging year, I have had to make difficult choices in order to live in my integrity. I remained steady when the ground shifted under my feet. And I have, even in lean periods, been keenly aware my life is an embarrassment of riches.
Buddhists follow “The Middle Way,” also referred to as “The Eightfold Path,” in order to achieve Nirvana, or the end of suffering. It is described as the middle ground between being and non-being, between form and emptiness, between attachment and aversion.
I keep thinking about that- the middle ground between attachment and aversion. That sounds a lot like sobriety to me.
In active addiction, I had an unnatural attachment to alcohol. Even when I wasn’t drinking, it consumed me. In sobriety, I have heard many a person say to me with an odd combination of pride and bemusement, I just don’t get it. I have one drink and I stop. I just stop.
I’m an alcoholic. If I have a drink, I get thirstier.
In early sobriety, I had an unnatural aversion to alcohol- as though it was inherently evil and frightening. I was around it all the time, and it felt – and let’s face it, it WAS – so dangerous. It was hard to not drink. Not drinking was practically an aerobic activity for me. I thought about drinking all the time. I wasn’t drinking, but alcohol was still very much in charge of my life.
Now I seldom think about alcohol, and when I do, I feel… nothing. I’m neutral. I am neither interested in it nor afraid of it. Don’t get me wrong, I take my recovery incredibly seriously. The idea of active addiction is terrifying to me, so I do what I need to do on a daily basis to maintain my sobriety. I have practices and people in my life that support my continued recovery. Addiction took me to a place where I drank every day – getting what I needed to feel okay was my number one priority. In recovery, I have the same level of dedication. I show the same ferocity in defending my recovery that I did defending my right to drink. But alcohol has absolutely no power over me unless I drink it. If I do? It’s over, because once I put alcohol in my system, it hijacks my brain and does whatever the fuck it wants. I don’t need to test that theory. The research has been done for me, and I’ve seen the evidence. I’ve attended the funerals.
About six months into sobriety, I was at a morning meeting. A young man walked in at the last minute. He was distraught. He said he drank the night before. He hadn’t planned on it. He hadn’t even wanted to. He just did. He was remorseful and undone, and thoroughly mystified as to how this had happened. His shame was palpable.
I started to tear up. I completely understood. I had been there so many times. The woman sitting next to me saw my reaction, put her hand over mine, leaned in and spoke so quietly only I could hear,
You do not ever have to feel that way again.
If you woke up this morning in despair, know this: you do not ever have to feel this way again. This can be last call. It can be closing time. You can turn on the lights, and look squarely at the wreckage. It’ll be hard, but that wreckage is there whether you deal with it or not. It will never be easier than it is today. You can make the choice to get honest and do the work, or you can eventually look back on this pain and chaos as the good old days, when it was only this awful – because addiction has one trajectory.
Either way, it’ll be a decision.
Today, on an ordinary Friday in June, I woke up with a clear head and an unashamed heart. Tonight, if I continue to decide to do the next right thing, I’ll lay my head down, sober, on my pillow. And in between, I’ll walk that middle path. I’ll live the life I have built day by day for the past eight years, by showing up, telling the truth, asking for help, and helping when asked. And not drinking, no matter what.
To infinity and beyond, loves.