Did Quitting Drinking Stick The First Time?

Dear Laura,

I was wondering did you stop drinking, then start again, then stop again? I drank over the weekend. After 4 nights of not drinking. The weekends are the absolute worst for me since my divorce. I hate being alone. I feel awful today that I drank. Anyway, I was just wondering if you stopped once and that was all it took.  

- Stumbling

Dear Stumbling,

There’s a poem I have written on scraps of paper tucked in my wallet, my backpack, various coats (read: through many seasons), desk drawers and journals. I wrote it down again this morning for you.

The poem is by Rumi and it was written thousands of years ago. I whispered it to myself many a morning after I drank when I knew I shouldn’t be drinking anymore. I’d ride the train and squeeze the words in the palm of my hand while quiet tears streamed down my face. I’d recite it as I brushed my teeth, looking into the mirror, asking myself, Why, baby? Why again? When will enough be enough?

I rolled the words around in my head when I was lying in a hospital bed having just totaled my car, before my mom came to get me, when it was just me and the machines, my blood still simmering with booze.

I posted it to Instagram more than once the day after I’d fallen yet again.

I used the words as a prayer, a promise, a mantra, a wish bigger than any other wish I’d cast up: to find it in me to stop, to want what I did not want, to love me while I kept trying, to let me keep coming back.

This is it:

Come, come wherever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again, come, come. - Rumi

Like I said, this was written by Rumi in the 1300’s. Long before you and I were around. I’m always blown away by Rumi’s poems because – well, they’re mind-blowing – but also because they’re so universal. They remind me the human condition has never changed. Thousands of years later, we’re still made of the same stuff. We want the same things, are afraid in the same ways, hold and process our pain same as ever and suffer and love all alike.

I say this not to diminish your own story or circumstances, but to remind you that thousands of people have shared your struggle and come through the other side of the difficult, and even the impossible. Which means, Stumbling, you are not unique. You are beautiful, fabulous and special. But you are not unique.

This is good news.

You know why? Because it means you don’t have to figure it out. If you want to get sober, which it sounds like you do, you need not know how yet. You only have to trust the warrior mamas who’ve gone before you. You’ll eventually have to integrate the experience into your own heart, brain and soul, but the only thing you need to be right now is teachable.

The time between walking into my first 12-step meeting and when I was able to put together a full 30 days of sobriety was over a year. In that time, I would have sworn to you many, many times, I was done. And then, I wasn't. I spent a lot of days sober that year - more days than not. I started to feel what it was like. I dipped my toe in the water.

In that year I also totaled a car, showed up at a sober party buzzed, drove drunk many times with a suspended license and an unregistered car (even though getting caught would mean jail), threw up red wine all over my white walls, and spent many, many nights in my living room drinking alone. One Saturday afternoon I drank white wine and walked around running errands in my town until I was so drunk I got scared, so I walked into my nail salon and had one of the Vietnamese-speaking women call my college roommate, who was seven years sober and lives in Colorado. Why? Why did I do that? It’s not as if she could’ve helped me. Eventually my mom came and picked me up and took me to the hospital where I’d been twice before in a period of six months and after we'd sat there waiting for 30 minutes she said, “Honey, let’s just go home.” She drove me home to her house, where I spent the night. I was a 36 year old woman – with a big job title and a beautiful daughter and a home and the outside appearance of togetherness – spending the night at her mommy’s. Because neither of us trusted me to stay at my own home.

Another time, my friend Kate surprised me at my house after dinnertime. I'd had enough wine that I didn't remember her showing up -- I only knew she was there the next morning when I saw her lying next to me, sleeping. As I scrambled around the kitchen making coffee, she asked how long this had been going on. I stopped, sat down at my kitchen table and cried.

“Not long,” I said. “Or not often, anyway. I just hate this, Kate. I hate that this is what I have to do. I don’t want it.”

“What?” she asked. “You hate AA or you hate drinking or you hate sobriety or what?”

“Yes,” I said. “I hate all of those things.”

She nodded. Hugged me. She knew what I’d been through and had seen first-hand where drinking took me. Less than a year prior we'd lost a dear friend to addiction. She also knew she couldn’t do it for me; she couldn’t carry me through the way we’d carried each other through so many things.

Most of the times I drank that year were boring and inconsequential.

I tell you all this, Stumbling, to say, God, no. I didn’t just stop once and that was all it took. I stumbled all over the fucking place. I searched for that third door like a woman with her hair on fire searching for water.

But you know what else I did? I kept going to AA meetings, even when I didn't want to. I kept reaching out to people, even when it was awkward and I was scared. I started posting to Instagram and writing before I was ready. I prayed. I read every goddamn book about addiction I could find, even really awful ones. I took suggestions from people who were sober, even if I didn’t like them or understand what they were telling me. I tried to listen more than I talked. I realized all the things that brought me to that point and had allowed me to achieve so much – my will, my brain, my fight, my perseverance, my toughness – were no help at all in this case. I finally came to see this was not going to be an intellectual exercise. No, if I was going to do this thing, I was going to need to surrender from my guts, not my mind.

There’s a joke with people in recovery that once you go to AA, it ruins your drinking. It’s funny because it’s true. Even when I was somehow able to handle drinking – and sometimes I did – I was never able to enjoy it again once I knew. That’s the bitch about truth: once it enters your bones, you can never remove it. You can try to un-know it, blot it out, stuff it down and dress it up, but it remains in place - hard and tacit – regardless of how you feel about it.

As Cheryl Strayed says, in "Tiny Beautiful Things":

“If there's one thing I believe more than I believe anything else, it's that you can't fake the core. The truth that lives there will eventually win out. It's a god we must obey, a force that brings us all inevitably to our knees.” - Cheryl Strayed

If you’re writing me, Stumbling, you already know the truth and something about your brief question tells me you’ve even accepted it on some level. So I will tell you there is no perfect path. You might drink 1,000 more times, but you don’t have to. In fact, you never have to drink again. You will stop when you are ready, but that doesn’t mean you should conduct research until everything is gone. Your bottom can be this very second, but if it isn’t, you can come, and come again.

I know a lot of sober people now and few of them stayed sober after the first, second or tenth time they tried. Every single one of them - including yours truly - says drinking never got any better.

I don’t think I could have fallen any fewer times than I did. I am also still very early on in this process and the idea of never drinking again doesn’t even make sense to me. So I don’t think about it. I only think about today. I can not drink today. I can do anything today, and so can you.

I’ll close this with something Anne Lamott posted to her Facebook page just after Robin Williams died. You can read the full post here, but the part I want to share is this:

“If you need to stop drinking or drugging, I can tell you this: you will be surrounded by arms of love like you have never, not once, imagined. This help will be available twenty four/seven. Can you imagine that in this dark scary screwed up world, that I can promise you this? That we will never be closed, if you need us?” - Anne Lamott

So the only advice this newbie will give is this: reach out and then be teachable. Tell one person, face to face (I don’t count and neither does God), your honest struggle. Don’t caveat it or try to find the right words. Just say the basic truth as best you can. If today you cannot do this with someone you know, go to a 12 step meeting and raise your hand. Or any other support group. Then just keep doing that.

Stay teachable, remember Rumi's words, and come, come again for as long as it takes.