Do I Have to Hit Rock Bottom?

Dear Laura,

Here it goes: since I was probably 15 I've struggled with drinking. Over the years I've done many things that could have completely destroyed the parts of my life I value the most. And if I'm being honest I have caused myself and others some significant pain. Being married and have kids now it seems like the stakes are much higher so my relationship with drinking has started to weigh heavily on my mind. After one incident I stopped drinking for a year but slowly I put new rules in place about when and how much I drink and I've managed to keep everything kind of under control for now.

My father is a recovered alcoholic and is very involved in AA and has sponsored many people over the years so I know that there is no such thing as controlled drinking. I don't want to wait for something else terrible to happen for me to stop. Do you have any advice on how to come to terms with my drinking now? Do you really have to hit rock bottom? Thanks so much for taking the time to read this. I was hesitant to reach out to you but after thinking about it for months I knew I had to. 

Afraid to Wait

Dear Afraid to Wait,

I was haunted by your question for several nights after I received it. Specifically by you asking if you really have to hit rock bottom because, of course, my initial response is, No! Then I thought about my own experience and how low it had to get for me and I began to worry that all my mental responses sounded like some rah-rah argument for sobriety that would've never resonated with me.  How do I reach someone who isn't totally desperate? But then I remembered my job is not to convince you of anything. My job is to share my own experience and hope that something resonates.

I think part of my emotional response to your letter is that I was you. I was in those shoes. Before I was married and had a baby I had—for the most part—kept my drinking in a place that didn’t cause too much concern. I had incidents, like you. I put on the brakes on, like you. I kept things relatively even, or so I thought (and in looking back, I was still causing a lot of damage), until one day or week or month I crossed an imaginary line and my drinking had become something else.

For me, like a lot of women, the elusive shift happened after I had my daughter. There were tons of other, huge stressors at that time: we moved across the country, unemployment, family drama, our relationship was rocky. But I think the real tweak was the pressure and discomfort of suddenly caring for another life. I felt really jarred by this human that suddenly needed me. It was an arrest to my person to have her physically attached to me so often, and all the while I loved her madly, fiercely. It was terrifying.

I say this because I think a lot of us mothers think we’ll get our shit together when we have babies. That it’ll be reason enough, or that we’ll snap out of it when we see what’s at stake in those beautiful faces, or that our love for the kiddos will take up so much space we won’t need the escape of drinking so much anymore. That we shouldn’t need it anymore.

So wrong, right?

For me it was the exact opposite. I needed drinking more when I became a mom. I was wound so tight, my edges were so sharp, that drinking took on a whole different shape almost immediately. I put more rules in place then, too. But it always felt like I was just barely hanging on. I sense that edge of anxiety in your letter, too. The “This is kind of working right now but it feels way too fucking fragile” edge.

So on that note, I commend you for reaching out. It’s a big thing to do. You’re smart, and wise, and lovely.

The next thing I will say is something you already knew I would say, but I’m going to say it anyway: No. No, no, no you do not have to hit rock bottom.

The really terrifying thing about rock bottom is you don’t know what it’s going to be. It could be something unfathomable and unfixable like an accident, or it could be something inane that just puts you over the edge and causes you to say, enough is enough. I had one event that veered way too close to the unfathomable and unfixable, then a DUI and separate accident that totaled my car. And in the year following those incidents I bumped along the bottom quite a lot. All throughout this I was upset, but still didn't reckon with the fact that something truly bad could happen. Not to me. And the reason I couldn’t get there is because I was sick. I was in a shitload of denial. Drinking had a stranglehold on me and it lied to me in my own voice. It wasn’t until I got sober that I started to get clear on all that actually could have happened hundreds, even thousands, of times: accidents, injuring myself or others, hurting my daughter, getting raped, assaulted, overdosing, the list goes on and on. What's more, beyond the overtly dangerous, I didn't see the more subtle but equally ruinous ways I was missing my life.

I think the fact that you wrote me the letter means there’s already a crack in your denial. That aside from all the terrible things that could happen, you probably already sense that you’re not present in your life because of the space drinking and thinking about drinking is taking up in your brain. I will tell you that you’re right. And that you probably don’t even realize the half of it. 

I say all the above because 1: I didn't actually think something terrible could happen, even though so many terrible things already had. And 2: I couldn't see reality for what it was, and I'm guessing you probably can't either, at least not totally. I think if you start to uncover what your trajectory has been since you were 15, you'll see that maybe you need not find a "bottom." Maybe you've been bloodied up enough already.

One thing I want to bring up, because I’ve heard echoes of it in so many letters I get, and so many conversations I have with other women (and men), and it’s also something I certainly believed at the core of my being. Here it is: We assume, so many of us, that giving up drinking is a fate worse than death. That getting sober is relegating us to some “B” version of life that nobody actually wants. That it’s like going to boring prison, or uncool prison, or to the weirdo corner where we have to sit for the rest of our lives, only to be truly ever understood by other, sad weirdos. That if we can’t drink anymore then, well, our lives are pretty much just done. I’ve heard more than one person in a meeting say that they would have preferred to get a psychotic diagnosis (bi-polar, schizophrenic, sociopathic) to getting labeled “alcoholic.” The room always laughs because everyone gets it.

Somehow in our society—where we have progressed in such epic ways in terms of women’s rights, gay rights, civil liberties, and everyone can basically manage the logistics of their lives through a little computer we hold in our hand—our ideas around drinking and addiction are still so screwed up it’s stunning. I had a friend recently tell me he would prefer coming out gay to coming out sober because people would be less shocked. Because they would have far fewer opinions about it. Because nobody would console him if he came out gay; they would hug him, high-five him, tell him to get on with his bad self. But coming out sober? Why? Was it that bad? Are you sure? I’m so sorry.

The example is heavily generalized, but you get the point. To much of society, and especially to those of us that struggle with drinking, giving it up is just: What? No way. Not that.

I am here to say, and this is coming from someone who could not imagine being sober any more than I could imagine my life as a blue canary: getting sober is really hard, but being sober is fucking awesome. Living life in hi-def, experiencing all that comes with it (even the really tough stuff) is beautiful, and exciting, and badass. Being free of the massive suckspace that drinking took up in my brain alone was like dropping 600 lbs. I thought not drinking would make me boring. What I didn’t realize is that there was nothing more boring than drinking the way I did.

I do think that even though it’s happening slowly, a shift is starting to take place. I think because of people like Dawn of She Recovers and Chris, Matt and Jeff at Since Right Now and Laura at The Sobriety Collective and efforts like The Rooms ProjectPhoenix Multisport and Hello, Sunday Morning the tide is starting to turn. People are waking up. Recent memoirs like "Blackout" by Sarah Hepola and "Drink: The Intimate Relationship with Women and Alcohol" by Ann Dowsett Johnston specifically are bringing female voices into the light.  There is a bit of a revolution taking place. I don’t know about you, but it put fire in my belly to think that I was doing something really subversive by not drinking. That I could change people’s ideas about what it means to be sober and bring it out into the light, even if only for my own selfish purposes because, Hey! I’m cool! I couldn’t handle alcohol and what’s the big deal with that? Seriously. What is the big fucking deal about that? It’s pretty weird when you think about it.

So that’s the rah-rah part of my speech. You don’t have to believe me. I’m sure you don’t. I wouldn’t have. But I also really, really wanted to hear it from someone like me. So there it is.

As far as how to come to terms with your drinking now, I would start by writing out your drinking and drugging history. Write it all down, without editing, starting from the very beginning. A friend of mine told me to do this after I’d texted her for the 50th time complaining about my broken heart and overdoing it yet again. It was really, really hard, but I did it and it was stunning to see how much I forgot, how long it had been a problem, and how so many of the things I regretted were wrapped up in booze. Don’t do it to torture yourself, do it as an exercise in willingness. Maybe you’ll see that it’s not as bad as you thought and you can throw this whole idea out the window! Or maybe, like me, you’ll let out a quiet, Oh, before you are even halfway through.

Because my path has included AA, I also recommend trying a meeting or two. If only to start hearing stories like yours, to hear how others feel, to start finding some identification and to signal to yourself and the universe that you’re willing to face this, even if only a tiny, tiny bit. I know it’s not everyone’s bag. I never thought it’d be mine. But I have come to love it, to appreciate what’s in those rooms, to see it as a true gift.

Reach out to other women, like me, and start to tell the truth, like you did.

Read all the books you can. Memoirs helped me tremendously, as did books about addiction, to understand how it actually works. A quick Google search will turn up a bunch, but I will also post a list this weekend of my favorites.

You’re a brave mama for writing your letter, Afraid to Wait. And you don’t have to find a more bottomy-bottom. Maybe if you go inside you'll realize it's already found you. You can start right now. You can push off from here. There are thousands of arms waiting to support you when you leap.

Photo credit: Frances Gunn, Unsplash