Aidan Donnelley Rowley

Am I an Alcoholic?

Am I an Alcoholic?

I have been wondering if I have a problem. Drinking for me took the form of 1-2 glasses of wine every day with dinner. I recently, without much thought, decided to give up drinking for Lent. The first week was somewhat difficult. I was a bit anxious and had cravings for my dinner time glasses of wine but as the second week began, I started feeling a surge of positivity and felt more open to everything, also more motivated to do things. I am now a month into it and wondered if I could be an alcoholic if I could quit so easily. 

Truths and Clues

God speaks to each of us as he makes us, then walks with us silently out of the night. - Rainer Maria Rilke

Sometimes we have a big truth sitting inside us. A knowing. Maybe that our job is wrong, our relationship is dead, our child is suffering, our health is in danger – but we don’t know how to live into it, to navigate through. Clues will get us there.

And sometimes, it’s the clues that lead us to the truth. They can point us to our treasure, when all we have to guide us a vague feeling of discontent or misalignment. A general sense that we’re off course.

Clues are a breadcrumb trail fed by our curiosities and appetites, curated through the people and events that show up in our lives, and they are available to us always.

When I wrote the the hypothetical story about my friend’s elephant tattoo and how it might lead her through a winding but definite path to explore her heart, if she kept open and kept following the clues, I was brought back to my own path – the interplay of truths and clues that have led me to where I am today.

There are millions, of course, but a few I want to tell you about.

The First Truth

I knew somewhat early in my marriage – to a man I loved and love very much – that it wasn’t quite right. This was a massively inconvenient and complicated truth, a brutally painful one, one I didn't even understand. I didn’t know what life would look like on the other side of it, but trusting that tiny, clear voice that wouldn’t stop no matter what I did, or how I wished it to, was the hardest and most important thing I’d done in my life up to that point. Not because my life improved on the outside (in many ways, it did not and has not) as a result of listening to it, but because it was my truth, my gut – even though I didn’t have the right words to explain it, even though I didn't want it, even though it crushed me and a lot of others – and honoring it meant not denying myself, my core.

As Cheryl Strayed says in one of her Dear Sugar columns addressing three women who are questioning their own inner voices in their relationships,

“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

And this was it. Alongside the truth this tiny voice kept whispering existed so many other contradictory truths: I loved him. He loved me. We have a child we adore. He's kind, and good-hearted, and so many other things. And yet, at some point I knew this voice would eventually win out. I knew silencing it was futile.

The Second Truth

“What is not brought to consciousness, comes to us as fate.” –Carl Jung

Long before I was willing to acknowledge, and even longer before I was willing to accept, I recognized I had a problem with alcohol. Some deep part of me knew that all my future happiness, and likely my life, depended on stopping this thing. The starkness of this thought seemed so dramatic when it came. I told myself it was for a long time. But in the end it turned out to be exactly that stark, exactly that serious.

There were so many clues along the way, an uncountable number. But we don’t listen until we listen, and sometimes we must be forced.

Once I couldn’t deny this truth any longer, in the same way I couldn’t deny the tiny, clear voice in my marriage, the question was how to proceed. And in this case again, I was completely lost. A girl without a map, a faulty compass, and a three ton backpack of fear.

One morning last summer, after a year of trying and falling down in sobriety, I woke up in a hotel room in California, having made it through the night before without drinking at dinner. This was a huge feat for me as traveling for work and drinking were well-worn pals. The chant from Friday Night Lights that I’d written on napkins and paper scraps and hummed in my head countless times, “Clear Eyes Full Heart” popped into my mind and I had the idea to start a new Instagram with that name.


So I created it. I didn’t follow any of my friends or co-workers; I followed nobody I knew in real life. I started it because I needed a place to write and post about this thing where people who didn’t know me could see it. My truths with the people in my real life were all mixed up and I didn’t want to keep track anymore. I wanted one small place to be brutally honest. Plus, I love words and pictures, they come easy to me, creating them makes me lose time (these are clues). It was a seemingly small little thing (clues usually are), but it set forth a whole trajectory.

Following The Clues

Through the Instagram account, I started to connect with people on the same path. Each time I created a post it felt like a tiny piece of art made of my insides. Each time I hit publish, a bit of me was released, and known. I started to let strangers know me. I started to find my words, and my need to pull those words together grew, until my posts became too long for Instagram and I started to write here again. I put more things out and got feedback from these strangers, who were starting to become people I knew.

Last summer I found out Elizabeth Gilbert was doing a book signing at Brookline Booksmith for her latest book, The Signature of All Things, and despite it being inconvenient and sweltering hot, I went with my daughter and my friend, Alex. We sat in the front row because I wanted Alma to see her and hear her talk about the main character in the book – whose name is also Alma – and so that I could ask her a question if the chance arose. We sat and listened: me, mesmerized and Alma, delighted if not a little confused about the character reference (Is that me? Who is she talking about?). When Liz asked the audience for questions, I raised my shaking hand. My heart pounded as I explained to her that this was Alma, my Alma, and that I wanted to bring her here to hear about the story of her Alma, but also that I’ve loved her work since before Eat, Pray, Love, that her words helped me navigate through my own marriage and separation and life. She smiled graciously and then proceeded to have a one-on-one exchange with Alma amidst hundreds of people in this theater.

She asked her, "How is it can I see your blue eyes in such a dark theater?"

Alma answered, "I don't know."

My heart exploded.

Elizabeth Gilbert's book signing for "The Signature of All Things", July 2014

Elizabeth Gilbert's book signing for "The Signature of All Things", July 2014

The bit of this day I'll never forget, the part that cut right through to my bones, is her response when someone asked her how she got over "writer's block." I loathed this question, but her response was something like:

“Whatever it is that keeps you afraid, that lets fear run the show, that holds you back from letting creativity work through you, you have to work through it and let it go. It might be an illness, your body image, the place where you live, resentments you have toward your father, I don’t really know. It might be alcoholism or an unhealthy relationship…”

--- she went on, but my heart stopped there.

“It might be alcoholism.”

She mentioned it in a list of a bunch of other things and she moved on, not placing any more emphasis on its significance or difficulty. And in that moment I knew, again, that it was the thing I had to move through first. That everything else – including any potential future I might possibly have as a writer – was on the other side of that.

It was that stark, that serious.

Through having been connected to Lindsey from my old Instagram account for years (someone I’ve also never met, although we are neighbors in Boston), I found Aidan, a mama and writer living in New York, who hosts “Happier Hour” literary salons, where she brings together women in her stunning home to talk about writing and support the chosen author’s book. One of the Happier Hours finally coincided with my bi-weekly work trips to the city, and in January I was able to attend a Happier Hour with Jane Green and Mira Jacob.

It was a freezing night in Manhattan and absolutely magical. I talked to women who were very well-established writers, and several who'd left their careers in legal/healthcare/real estate to pursue writing. On that night I realized, these women are just like me. This mystical, far-away place where “writers” lived and my own place in the world were not so far apart.

I started to write more, and to be more honest in my writing, particularly about my struggle with addiction and sobriety and the dissolution of my marriage. I started to write from my heart. I started to write even when I didn’t want to. I took Ira Glass' advice and let myself write horribly. I focused on producing a bunch of work, to show up every day for this thing because it’s really all I’ve ever wanted to do.

I started to stay sober.

And because I was sober, I could write.

Because I could write, because it helped me tell the truth in words, I started to learn how to tell the truth in-person.

In meetings, in day-to-day conversations, in my friendships, I told the truth.

Because I could tell the truth, I could stay sober for another day, and then another.

I grew lighter. The thing I thought impossible to do was the thing making me lighter.

One Saturday last fall I got an email from a girl I knew from high school and college. Someone whose life ran parallel tracks to mine, but we never really knew each other well.

She told me that she wasn’t quite sure if she should reach out, but felt compelled to, that she identified with parts of my story, that she really looks forward to reading my posts, that she hoped I kept writing because it helped her.

This note came at a time of doubt and it nudged me to keep going.

This same girl then tagged me in a note on Facebook about a writing retreat Cheryl Strayed was hosting in Greece the following summer, urging me to apply. I thought, No way. Too big. Too fabulous. How would I afford it? I'd never be chosen.

But a little voice in me wouldn't shut up: Why not?

Then I couldn't stop thinking about it.

So I applied, and a month or so later, on a Friday night, I got an email that I was in. I screamed and danced around my apartment like an insane person.

So this summer I'm going to Greece to hang out with Cheryl Strayed. Pinch me one hundred times, and then again.

There are so many other details - people, twists of fate, frustrations disguised as blessings - that have played into these stories I'm telling. To map it all would be a book itself (it's happening).

This Ain't No Whimsy Thing

There are so many more details - people, twists of fate, frustrations disguised as blessings, detours and guideposts - that have played into these stories I'm telling. To map it all would require a book itself (it's happening).

The point of it all is this: we must tell our truths and follow our clues.

Hearing your truth and following your clues requires being brave. It requires staying open, being patient for so much longer than we think we can, and then moving quickly. It requires trust that we are guided, and learning to identify the difference between our ego’s will and the divine (which is tricky, because our egos are sneaky bitches). Following clues requires that we slow down and take notice, regularly. It means we sometimes have to do things that are inconvenient and against our plan, or someone else’s, entirely. It means we often proceed without clarity or a promised outcome, which is to say it requires faith, and faith is often hard-earned only by surviving our cuts and bruises.

Following your path, trusting your heart, living out your dream – all this stuff might sound so whimsical and airy-fairy. Like extravagance, a luxury, a selfish pursuit. But I think it is the exact opposite.

I believe there’s great danger in so many of us walking around separated from our hearts, unknowable to ourselves and therefore each other.

There’s great sadness, but also real risk, in not showing up in our lives as we were meant to (and I do believe we are all meant to do something) because it robs others of our gifts, and our gifts are what bring us joy, and love, and healing, and often life-saving grace. Our gifts are the least selfish thing we can bring forth, even though it may require selfishness to own them, and grow them.

I have no idea where my own path will all lead, but I do know that as of today I've been sober almost six months and I'm writing every day and I feel like I'm finally coming home. Following this path feels right in the deepest center of my being - my core - and I'm committed to staying open to what comes next.

You, too?

2014: A Beautiful Struggle

At the end of 2012, I created a Spotify playlist titled “2012, You Suck, But Your Music Did Not.” It is still one of my favorite playlists and it perfectly encapsulates that year.

2012 did suck in many ways, my God. It was the year my husband and I separated – right in the middle of it, July he moved out – and before that and after for a while it was wall to wall pain. That winter I shoveled my porch and car out of impossible heights of snow from Hurricane Nemo, alone, with a blinding hangover. It took me eight hours. I threw up twice. I navigated single parenting for the first time with a three year-old and we both cried a lot.

No year is all bad, of course, but some we are so eager and so relieved to usher out the door – like a long visit from an unwanted guest who has left one too plates of crusty food in our kitchen, taken one too many shits in our bathroom. Good riddance, we think, as we wave them off and relish the click of our front door shutting with a swoosh of cold air from the outside.

I started to make a playlist for 2014 music this morning but realized most of this year’s songs were recycled from the years prior. So while I don't have the music for it, the title of the playlist would definitely be 2014: A Beautiful Struggle.

5 Beautiful Things I Struggled for in  2014

1. Impossible things became possible.

I went to my first AA meeting in July of 2013 but struggled hard against the idea of being a sober person, of giving up drinking, of all the ways I and my life would have to change, for the better part of a year. I could go to meetings and put together days and make new connections and as much as not drinking felt like finally stopping the bleeding on a massive head wound, I just couldn’t fathom keeping a hold on it, and I couldn’t. It felt… impossible.

But then, things that were impossible – small and large – became possible, simply by doing them once, as practice, as a trial, even if it was uncomfortable or against my will. For example, I drank at home a lot. I could not imagine my home as a place where I did not drink wine at night. But one night, I didn’t. And then another. And another. And another.

It was impossible to imagine traveling without drinking. Especially to the places my work brings me and the people I travel with: Vegas, New York, San Francisco. Early in the year, I couldn’t do it. I just didn’t know how, didn’t want to, couldn’t. But then, in June I went to San Francisco and I didn’t drink. Then, I went to New York in September and did drink, but went again in October, and then again in November and December and didn’t. Then, Vegas. I stayed sober in fucking Vegas for three days in October.

Vegas, November 2014

Vegas, November 2014

There were one million other impossible moments, too. I wrote about one of them here, at the end of this post, where I talk about the time I rode the train to Boston with a wine bottle between my legs and didn’t drink it.

Any time we do an impossible thing, we break open our brain, and then we can be put together in a new way. I broke my brain a lot this year.

2. I built a space where I could tell the truth.

It sounds silly, but one of the greatest things I did this year was create a new Instagram account where I could speak the truth about sobriety, myself, how I was really feeling and doing. I have had this blog for a long time, and had several ones before it. I’ve journaled since I was eight. I’m on Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn and SnapChat and although I’m pretty open in general, I needed a space where I could write down the exact truth without leaving out even 1%. I needed to create a new circle, my own space, without co-workers and friends and family and people who might have some kind of opinion or concern about what I was saying. I needed to be able to scream into the internet to complete strangers.

So, I created @iflyatnight_ on July 21 while I was on a work trip in San Jose and posted this:

San Francisco, June, 2014

San Francisco, June, 2014

At the time I did not know that there was this amazing, strong, loving group of cool people out there who would scoop me up as one of their fellow weirdos and carry me along. It’s been so fun and so important. When I posted about getting my 90-day chip yesterday over one hundred of those other little weirdos gave me a high-five.

We all need a place where we can find our voice and tell the whole mess of our truth. It is not enough to say it alone or on paper or even to God. We need each other – at least one other person – to say to, “Here I am, all 100% of me, just like this,” and to be seen and recognized and reflected back as beautiful.

I met Aidan, who prompted me to write about a moment that changed my life – a moment I’d needed to write about for too long.

And my sobriety brother John who wrote this beautiful poem for me one day:

3. I met fucking Elizabeth Gilbert!

I love this woman. I have loved her since I read Eat, Pray Love in 2007 on a plane to DC when I was suffocating with the truth I could not swallow: I was married (recently, in fact) and I did not want to be married. I loved someone and also wished I had a take-back. I recognized her story and her words so completely as my own and took immense solace in them, despite being crushed by their truth. As a woman and a writer and a seeker, I carry her words around in my heart daily. To meet her and introduce her to Alma and watch as she and Alma exchanged words in front of a room full of people was totally magical and fun and surreal. Also, her Facebook page is such a great source of love and community and wisdom. If you don’t follow, I recommend.

4. On that note, I read a few really important books.

I read a lot of wonderful books this year. Two that stand out:

Gift from The Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

“Perhaps this is the most important thing for me to take back from beach-living: simply the memory that each cycle of the tide is valid; each cycle of the wave is valid; each cycle of a relationship is valid.”

The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield

“Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”

5. I learned that we don’t do it for anyone else. 

There was no light bulb moment that got me to see I had to do it just for me. I don’t even know if those words are the right words. I just know that at some point, through falling down six hundred and seventy thousand times and getting up just one fraction of an inch more times than that, a little flicker-light inside of me started to fight for my own life because there’s something in me I don’t want to let die. Because I want to dare to live for real.

I wrote this as it relates to getting sober, but think it applies to really anything that breaks you open and requires reinvention at the gut level: losing weight, grieving loss, being a parent, fighting disease. 

I love this year for what it brought. Onward.