Over the weekend I got an email, like hundreds of others, asking The Question.
The Question is this (and it's been asked in many different ways): What was the tipping point? What was it that made the difference when you finally got sober for real, for good, once and for all?
The Question was the reason I read and re-read all those damn memoirs, went to meetings, and even clicked through 90’s-era substance abuse forums late at night and early in the morning when I couldn’t sleep. I wanted to locate the magic sticky glue. The key. The secret combination lock that would finally, once and for all, make sobriety stick.
This is my best shot at answering.
First I want to say, for me, it is still about today. I pray my sobriety is for keeps, but I also realize it's a daily grace. This doesn’t mean I live in fear or that it’s on my mind all the time. Most days I’m just living my life. But it is the first thing I ask for help with each morning, and the last thing I say thank you for before I go to sleep. It is the diamond in the center of my chest, the thing I hold most dear, the reason I’m able to do anything else.
This attitude—let’s call it humility—is born from a deep respect for what it is I have. And that is born from trying to stay sober and failing, despite my own volition. None of the things that pulled me through other tough spots in my life—intellect, willpower, frustration, competitiveness, repression, denial—kept me sober. (They could keep me from drinking for a while, but they could not keep me sober.) There’s a saying in the AA Big Book, alcohol is “cunning, baffling, and powerful” and to that I say, yes, yes, and yes. Call it a disease, a condition, a bad habit, call it whatever—I came to respect it the way I respect a tidal wave or a grizzly bear. I’m not going to pretend like I can play with either of those things. I now know what I cannot fuck with. I cannot fuck with alcohol and I keep that in the front-most place in my mind.
As for the rest, trying to pin down the one thing that tipped me is impossible. It’s like trying to figure out which brick is responsible for holding up a house. There's never one, of course.
I could tell you about the woman in my first AA meeting, who I never saw again, who told me to push off from here.
I could tell you about listening to Earl Hightower tapes over and over in my car, on the T, in the bathroom at work while I cried. How this unlikely old man, speaking through my earbuds because someone bothered to record him however long ago, felt like God.
I could tell you about my wild friend Jen, who called me one morning while I was driving to work hungover again. She was screaming into the phone maniacally because that’s how Jen talks—like ten cups of coffee—and she told me, pleaded with me really, to just hold on because one day the lights will turn on and it will all make sense.
I could tell you about the man who made me feel out of control and wild with lust and desperation, and how one warm Sunday afternoon in September he sat next to me on a curb in a park in Boston and told me as he looked straight ahead, not at me, that he couldn’t do it, couldn’t be with me if I was drinking, didn’t trust me, and how I watched his mouth as he said the words and I wanted to touch his arm, the pale skin below the edge of his t-shirt, and how I knew I couldn’t, that I shouldn’t, and that I would never be able to access the things I really wanted if I kept going. I could tell you that it was the starkness of this moment—of having something so tangible right in front of me, in such close proximity, breathing distance, and being unable to reach out and touch it—that broke me.
I could tell you it was my friend Grant, who told me that things get better, then worse, then different.
I could tell you it was the 100th time I prayed or the 1,000th time I drank.
I could tell you it was the 12-step meetings, and how I learned to watch people tell the truth there, how I eventually practiced it myself, tentatively, with a small voice, while sitting on my hands to keep them from shaking.
I could tell you it was the writing—the act of finally doing it—how it connected me to the thing in me that I loved more than drinking, and that I knew—that I really, really knew—I couldn’t have both things in my life.
I could tell you it was Elena's words.
I could tell you it was my daughter, who innocently helped me clean up maroon vomit stains from the white walls of our hallway one morning after a blackout.
I could tell you it was when my ex-husband, in an act of surprising kindness only a few months into our separation, kissed me on the forehead in the doorway of my apartment and told me he was proud of me for trying. How I closed the door after he left and collapsed to the floor, taking relief in large gulps of air, because he showed me a softness I thought was lost for good.
I could tell you it was 138 weeks ago in San Francisco when I took the picture at the top of this post after reading John O'Donohue for the first time.
I could tell you about the first weekend I spent sober, and how it felt like an impossible marathon, something I could never repeat again, let alone week after week. But how that weekend opened a small crack of possibility.
I could tell you about this morning.
Or this day.
Or my DUI.
I could tell you about meeting Alex, Tara, Jenny, Julia, Caroline, Daisy, Justin, Jon, Shannon, Hilary, Tammi, Mel, Kristen, Michelle, Glenn, Mary Ellen, Tommy, Catherine, Sophie, and so many others, and how each of them added a brick, some mortar, a bit of the foundation, or maybe a window in the new house I was building.
I could tell you about all of these things and they would all be true. They are all true.
But underneath all the other pieces, there is a bit of truth that I don’t talk about too often because it sounds…harsh. Oversimplified. Stark. I don't know. It is my truth, and it was ultimately the fly in my ointment. Once it was there, I couldn't pull it out.
It is part of an essay in Augusten Burrough’s book, This is How, and I read it on my phone while walking home from the train one day. The words hit me so hard I stopped and sat on a curb to finish, crouched over my phone, squinting to see through the glare the sun made on my screen. On this particular day, I was close to caving again.
It goes like this:
Just because you want something doesn’t mean you have to have it.
I know how infuriating that is to hear.
Relapse is the temper tantrum you allow yourself to have when you forbid yourself to stop drinking. To stop drinking, you stop drinking. You pour it out right now.
He goes on…
The thought that precedes relapse—certainly in my case and I bet in many others as well—is, “screw it.” Screw it is an idiom that means, “I no longer care."
Ugh. Ugh. I felt this. I knew it and I hated him for saying it. I knew it every time I'd picked up a drink in the past year. I had the knowledge by then. I wasn’t physically addicted to the point that my body required alcohol any longer. I knew the choice was there, even as I denied it.
I recommend reading the whole essay as there is more context, but the punchline is this:
In 100 percent of the documented cases of alcoholism worldwide, the people who recovered all shared one thing in common, no matter how they did it:
They didn’t do it.
They just didn’t do it.
You absolutely can stop drinking, right now.
The question is only, do you want to be sober more than you want to drink?
Very few people can answer this question truthfully and reply, yes.
I hope you’re one of them. Maybe you are.
I didn’t think I was.
I’m wary of sharing this because it makes it sound like addiction is a choice, and I don't believe it is. At some point, yes, every person who experiences addiction originally chose to drink or take the drugs or have the sex or eat the food or whatever. But nobody chooses to become addicted. It’s one of the many paradoxes I’ve found to be true in this process.
For me, in the beginning, being sober was too blunt. The loss of my identity to drinking—which made up most of who I was—was too large, too painful, too confusing to absorb. How do you alleviate a phantom pain that is everywhere? How do you suddenly make sense of a picture that’s been blown into a million molecules of incoherent color? You don’t. You have to wait for the molecules to settle into something else, and in the waiting, you have to rely on blind faith and your own determination to fight for a thing you can’t yet see.
I’m not talking about the first days when I was still so physically addicted that drinking was necessary. I’m not even saying I could really hear the choice. I’m saying after a certain time, and much earlier than when I actually stopped for good, it was there. Even if it was more faint than the tiniest whisper, or farther away than a scream from the bottom of a very deep well, it was there.
It was there when I sat in meetings and took permission to drink again from someone who shared a story of relapsing.
It was there when I said yes to going to an event where I knew the temptation would be too great for me to say no.
It was there when I chose to tell some people I was quitting, but not others.
It was there when I blamed the triggers.
It was there when I took my daughter to Bertucci’s instead of Panera for dinner because I knew I could get wine at Bertucci’s.
It was there every time I said, Tomorrow.
It was there every time I found my car pulling into the parking lot of the liquor store.
It was there, even though I denied it and hated it and wished it away.
It was there.
Admitting this didn’t make staying sober any easier. Quite the opposite. It simply removed the last excuse I had. It crumbled the final barrier between me and the pain I had been avoiding all my life. It was the birth of my responsibility; the truest pulse of humility; the last, futile punch my ego could muster.
The answers to the big questions are always both complicated and simple. There was a tipping point and there were countless things that nudged me toward it. I needed every person, every conversation, every book, poem, word, mistake, win. I needed the hands of thousands of others who'd gone before me, pressing gently on my back, lifting my feet, catching my falls. But in the end—though I kept waiting for it—the final push wouldn't come from outside. It had to come from within, and it would be quiet and go largely unnoticed, day after day. It was me who had to make the brave and consistent choice to own my life.