I had a pretty surreal experience one Friday night this summer. One of my ex-colleagues was moving to Austin, and he was having a going away get together in Boston. Like so many social events, I said I'd go thinking, "I'll just go and not drink and it'll be fine and fun and a good way to practice this - no big deal." And then, as the event draws nearer, I got anxious. My mind flip flopped like a fish between going/not going/going but drinking/drinking before and not drinking there/that's crazy - just don't drink!/go with someone sober/no, that sucks, just drink if you want to drink/I don't want to miss out/I'll feel like shit if I drink/he'll be pissed if I don't go/I have to protect myself first/fuck it, I want to party!/fuck it, this isn't worth it/who will be there that knows I'm not drinking?/who will be there that doesn't know?/it's just one night/what's the point?/GAH.
I went for a run that afternoon just before I had to get ready to go – or not – and my thoughts were so loud I actually stopped a few times, bent over, put my hands on my thighs and squeezed my sweaty eyes shut. Please, JUST. SHUT. UP.
Sounds exhausting, right?
It was. It is. Utterly.
I decided to go. I got ready, my mind growing more and more squirrely as I put on my mascara and tried not to look at myself in the mirror too closely. I drove to the train station and actually bought a bottle of wine on the way. I got on the train, took a seat, and put the bottle of wine between my legs. I had an empty Starbucks coffee cup in my purse, which I’d just rinsed out with old water from a water bottle in my car in the parking lot. I sat there – the gorgeous, warm, glowy light of the early evening sun bouncing off the insides of the train car – my knees up against the seat in front of me, feet dangling down and swaying as the train jigged and jagged on the tracks, like pendulums.
I looked at my phone. I could call someone. I could text someone. I paused.
My brain was in an epic tug-o-war.
I texted Holly: “Can you talk? I’m in a state.”
I took a breath and closed my eyes. Just wait.
She responded: “In 20 I can. You’ve got this.”
I took a breath and closed my eyes. Just wait.
The train approached Lynn, then Chelsea. Next stop, North Station. I still hadn’t opened the bottle.
Holly: “Do this meditation. It stops your brain.”
I played the meditation. I sat there fucking meditating on the train with a wine bottle between my legs. The slightest, tiniest crack of space opened.
We arrived at North Station and I walked off the train. I called my ex to hear Alma’s voice and we spoke for a second, but I do not remember what about. I grabbed a slice of pepperoni pizza and I glanced back at the train schedule. In two minutes, there was a train leaving for home. I ran for it, ditching the bottle of wine in the trash with a thrust of anger mid-stride.
I rode the train home feeling about as crazy as I ever had; like I had just walked to the edge of a cliff and hung over but somehow managed to pull myself back up – all adrenaline. I talked to Holly and told her what happened. I drove home, walked to the beach and took this picture.
It took me hours to come down from that train ride. Although I felt like I’d won that particular battle, I was exhausted with how difficult the war was. I didn’t feel like I’d done it myself. What if Holly hadn’t answered my text? What if I hadn’t heard Alma’s voice? What if there hadn’t been a train leaving back at just that moment and I had more time to think? What if, what if, what if. It all felt too fragile.
But yet, I did do it. I had one experience where I made the decision to not say ‘fuck it’ first. It was something. It was something.
Start Before You Are Ready
After that experience, I said to my friend Holly, “I can’t write about this stuff until I’m on the other side. I don’t feel like I have the right to.”
In her usual awesome way, she called bullshit on that.
And she’s right, I realize. If everyone who had something to express waited until they were out of the muse experience to express it in whatever form, art would suck or not exist at all. We’re never really out of any experience; the path just changes shape as we grow, or don’t.
So, I’ve been thinking a lot about the paradoxes of recovery.
par·a·dox (ˈperəˌdäks/): a statement or proposition that, despite sound (or apparently sound) reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory.
Life in general is full paradoxes, but they feel especially pronounced and profound in the sobriety journey. Things that seem ‘logically unacceptable’ and counter-intuitive but nonetheless co-exist simultaneously. Thinking through and more importantly, experiencing these paradoxes, underscores the complexity of “getting it.”
I have five of them written down on this piece of paper next to me.
The first: You can't do it alone, and ultimately, only you can do it.
People said to me early on: ask for help. I nodded, yes, I do, ok, I will, I am. But I didn't even know what that meant. I didn't know how to ask for help - not really. I also didn't want to because that meant all kinds of things: admitting I needed it, being honest about how I felt, hearing what someone else had to say when I didn't really think anyone knew better, shedding light on my darkest shame. But also, I just literally didn't know how. Call people? I don't call anyone. I answer my mom's calls because she worries when I don't. I call my ex because we’re raising a child together and there are logistics. But I don’t call people just to talk. And every day? No.
During my worst drinking - and most people will say the same - it was a lonely, solitary show but I didn't really realize how alone I was. I could ask for favors to get myself out of the latest self-imposed tragedy like a lost phone or a car left somewhere miles away, but I could not ask for real help because the truth made me choke. The real truth was unavailable even to me because it was buried under layers of denial.
But I’ve realized through watching others and trying to do it all myself and failing (a lot) both what help looks like and how to ask for it. Sometimes it means calling. Sometimes it means getting on my knees or sitting in a closet at work, closing my eyes, and breathing until I can hear myself breathe. Sometimes it means showing up to a meeting against my will. Sometimes it’s saying, “I don’t know what’s wrong, but I feel fucking crazy” to the first person who picks up. Often times it means saying no – even when it disappoints people, even when I think I should be able to say yes because I’ve always said yes (this is another paradox about selfishness, coming later).
The flip side of this – the ‘only you can do it’ part – comes into play in the one million moments where only you can decide whether or not to drink. No matter how many hours you spend on the phone, in meetings, under surveillance of other people, or asleep, all of us have to venture out into the world solo. Save the bubble of residential treatment programs, we have to go to work, eat lunch, run errands, get on airplanes, stay in hotel rooms, go to parties, walk or drive home and pass by liquor stores and bars and a zillion other places where we could drink. We can’t hide from life (without being very unhappy). So while we can set ourselves up to stay sober, there are a million opportunities to drink. Every other week my daughter lives with her dad, and on those weeks, nobody is watching me. I could drink every night if I wanted to and nobody would have to know. A lot of times I did.
So, a big part of my path has been recognizing that in some situations, I am going to want to drink more than I will want to be sober. No matter how wonderful/proud/clear/hopeful/lucky/peaceful I’ve felt sober, there will be moments I forget all that and I’ll want to say ‘fuck it’ and drink. In these moments, I have to choose - just me. It’s not up to God, or my sponsor, or anyone else. I choose.
This is tricky because it makes it sound like we always have a choice.
From a pure physiological standpoint, when one is caught in the active cycle of addiction and our brains are going haywire, the impulse to drink (or whatever) is as strong as if you were actually in grave danger or starving to death. And once those signals are triggered in the brain, it is very, very, very hard to stop it. (This is an ultra-simplistic way of describing a very complex process.) When you’re in this kind of spiral and the “train has left the station”** it does not feel as if there is a choice. And, in the very late stages of alcoholism or drug addiction the person might actually need the substance to survive.
But physiology aside, the mental and emotional factors that weigh into the decision to drink or not, are complicated and slippery. There are a zillion angles on this, but my mind often goes to something Augusten Burroughs wrote in “This is How”:
“To be successful at not drinking, a person needs to occupy the space in life drinking once filled with something more rewarding than the comfort and the escape of alcohol. This is the thing you have to find. The truth is that people who cannot stop drinking are people who, however guilty they may feel and however dire the consequences, have become so addicted to the drug and the experience that they prefer it to the remainder of their lives. While they may truly want to be sober, they want to drink more.Taking a drink is the opposite of powerlessness. It is taking firm, decisive action to terminate a state of sobriety that feels less satisfying and less convincing than drinking has felt in the past or we imagine will make us feel in the present. It may feel like one is powerless because it’s frustrating to be unable to authentically want the thing you really want to want. But don’t."
Feels less satisfying and less convincing than drinking has felt in the past or we imagine will make us feel in the present. This is pretty powerful, particularly when sobriety is new and uncomfortable and unsettling and shitty. It takes faith that forgoing short-term satisfaction will yield something more satisfying in the long-term. It requires believing other people who promise it’s worth it. It means enduring feelings that feel impossible to endure because you never have. It means digging real deep, daily.
All this to say, recognizing there are moments when I will want to drink more than I want to be sober - but that they pass - has been key and also a product of painful experience. I had to wake up for the Xth time on both sides of the decision tree to feel both outcomes. I have to accept that every day is a new day and just because I didn’t want to drink today, doesn’t mean I won’t want to tomorrow. I have to own both my personal power and my powerlessness over what happens after I drink.
I have to accept that I cannot do it alone, but ultimately, only I can do it.