I had just come off a weekend of drinking. A bad one. A bunch of hiding and embarrassment and ugh. I didn't want to be drinking anymore, but I just couldn't stay sober for long. Days. A week. Two weeks. But not longer. I was stuck in a crushing in-between place, a purgatory. I had a lot of secrets, had just ruined a relationship, I had all kinds of knowledge about AA and sobriety, having gone in and out of the rooms for over a year, and a stockpile of evidence to prove there was nothing left for me in drinking.
And yet, I was stuck.
I cried that whole train ride into work. The tears felt good in my dry eyes, the rims of them ached from hangover and fear and shame and defeat. It had been over a year since I first started trying to get sober. I'd drawn so many lines: after my birthday, after the holidays, after Alma's birthday, after the one year mark of my brother's wedding, when I had the worst of my bottoms. Line after line and I kept hopping right over them. I'd make it a while. I'd feel good and strong and hopeful, and then I'd find myself pulling the ripcord, going to the liquor store, or going out to eat and ordering wine, and...I just couldn't seem to hold on. The chasm between where I was and where I wanted to be was just too wide.
Push off from here.
On the train, I held my backpack on my lap and closed my eyes. I was a girl dressed up as a grown up. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I whispered to myself, “Push off from here, Laura. Just push off from here.”
This is something a woman said to me in one of my first recovery meetings. In the meeting I had shared some of the horrific things only a mother who drinks can understand – the special kind of vitriol saved for mothers who are addicts, as my friend puts it – and she came up to me afterward and said, “I know, I know. It’s the absolute worst. But you can push off from here. You can leave all that behind.”
So again, for what felt like the the millionth time, I said to myself: push off from here.
The truth is I was so pissed off. I was so angry this was my card. Why did I get tagged? The Saturday of that weekend was my mom’s 60th birthday party and the night before I'd decided to have my own. I drank through most of the afternoon and then stashed away beers and nips of vodka around my house while my brother, his wife and my daughter pretended like they didn't know what was going on. Which meant on the night of my mom's party, I was hungover, sober, and surrounded by a big group of family and drinks who were all drinking and having a blast.
I remember looking around the room and thinking, this is so fucking unfair.
Toward the end of the night, when everyone was getting pretty loose, I escaped to my car so I could cry . My brother, fresh from previous night's scene, came looking for me. The fact that he was worried his big sister had snuck off to drink because that's what I did was beyond embarrassing. The fact that I was a 37 year old woman who had to hide away at a party to cry; this pity party I was having; the fact that I once again had put the focus on me: I hated it all. I hated everything goddamn thing about it. I hated everyone in that room who didn’t have the big red "ADDICT" stamp on their forehead and I hated myself for not being able to accept it yet.
Before going back in, my brother and I stopped to talk outside the restaurant.
He said, looking at my with his sweet blue eyes, “There’s a party going on inside there, Laura. And we’re all wondering where you are."
“I know," I replied. "I’m sorry. I needed air.”
He nodded. I could tell he was angry, but trying to be patient. After a long pause, he asked, “Do you feel like you’re doing this alone?”
I inhaled, looked up at the street lamp. “I don’t feel like I’m doing it alone. But it is mine. Only I can do it.”
“That’s right,” he said. “It’s yours. And I’m really, really sorry this is your thing, sister. I know—I mean I don’t know—how hard it is for you. But I know it’s hard.”
“It is," I said, looking down. "But it is mine."
His frustration deflated and he hugged me. People inside were looking for us, waving to us from the windows. We walked back inside and shortly after I drove my daughter home while the party continued.
Acceptance is a small, quiet room.
You hear a lot about acceptance in recovery. The big book states, The result was nil until we let go absolutely, meaning until you’re able to accept this thing fully, you ain’t gonna stay sober. And even if you do stay sober, you’re probably not going to be very happy about it.
But the thing about acceptance is this: it isn’t a single moment in time. At least not for me. Some people—a lot of people—talk about having a moment, a “rock bottom,” where they sink as low as they possibly can and realize they simply can't go on. Call it a spiritual awakening. Call it a psychic change. In AA circles, it's called “the gift of desperation."
I had plenty of horrific, demoralizing moments that shocked me into a degree of acceptance: DUIs, blackouts, compromising situations, friends calling me out, family calling me out, putting my daughter in danger, putting me in danger. But I also still had a lot of outside things I could point to and say, Here. That. See? I can’t be that bad. I’ve always been relatively successful at work. I have a lot of friends. Family that loves me. I’m wanted in places. I have a car, a home, a beautiful daughter. I run, I teach yoga, my business card says I’m a Vice President. I present well.
So while there were many, many points when I accepted something had to change, I couldn’t seem to hold onto that acceptance. Why? Because it's sneaky. Because it's complicated. Because it requires changing your whole life. Because it's scary and lonely. Because it's really fucking hard to live in a world where drinking is everywhere. Because the very definition of the disease is a denial that you have a problem. Because it lied to me in my own voice.
How do we accept this when we still have things to lose? How do we hold on to that acceptance? How do we get from here to there?
When I got home that night after the party, I wrote this down on a piece of paper:
Acceptance is a small, quiet room.
It’s a line from Cheryl Strayed’s incredible book, “Tiny Beautiful Things.”
“Acceptance is a small, quiet room and what I meant by that has everything to do with simplicity, with sitting in the ordinary place, with bearing witness to the plain facts of our life, with not just starting at the essential, but ending up there. Acceptance asks only that you embrace what’s true. Allow your acceptance of that to be a transformative experience. You do that by simply looking it square in the face and then moving on. You don’t have to move fast or far. You can go just an inch. You can mark your progress breath by breath.”
You can just go an inch. You can mark your progress breath by breath.
This notion has the same profound meaning as “one day at a time," which is the same as “start where you are,” which is the same as “push off from here,” which is the same as one of my most favorite lines from Annie Lamott:
“E.L. Doctorow said once said that 'Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.' You don't have to see where you're going, you don't have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”
So on that train ride into work in September when I took a picture of my feet, I did something I'd never done before: I stopped promising myself I wouldn’t drink again.
I stopped thinking about what tomorrow, or next week, or a lifetime would look like. I stopped worrying about whether or not I'd be able to have a relationship, whether I'd be boring, whether I'd be happy, whether I'd find my way. I literally just focused on the next step, the next breath. I went to a meeting that day. I talked. I went home that night. I said a prayer, a simple prayer, thank you, and I went to bed. I woke up, got on my knees, and asked for willingness again, just for the day.
I didn’t try to move fast or far. I went an inch. I marked my progress breath by breath.
I also stopped pretending I didn't feel things I did. Like really fucking pissed off. Frustrated. Ambivalent. Angry. Jealous. I started, for the first time, being honest about what was going on with me. This is a very hard thing to do when you've spent so much time—maybe your whole life, in fact—pretending to be alright. I was always ashamed of my big, human-sized feelings and desires. I was driven to other's truth through music, writing, art. But when it came to myself, I choked on the truth. My friends have often joked about my proclivity towards the dark and depressing when it comes to music and books, Oh groan, don't let her pick the book for this month, I don't want to slit my wrists. Or, please put on something other than depression rock, gawd." It's funny, and fair. It also makes sense. I don't think it's the darkness that draws me in, but the honesty.
Any mother who didn't "magically bond with their angel" when they gave birth or couldn't quite grasp "the miracle of breastfeeding" knows the importance of honest stories about motherhood.
Anyone who's been blindsided by a lonely, disappointing drought in a marriage knows the need for a forthright take on love.
And any person who suffers from the insanity of alcohol addiction knows the absolute necessity of hearing the words, me, too.
As I was writing this I remembered a passage quote from Augusten Burrough's book, "This is How" that pretty accurately sums it up.
All improvements, transformations, achievements, liberations; everything you want to change about yourself and your life; everything you want to make happen, any obstacle you want to overcome, any crisis you must survive – the prerequisite is being able to allow yourself to feel whatever it is you feel and not pretend you feel something you don’t.
This may seem obvious to some, but to me (and I think most of us, if we really think about it) this level of honesty is frightening, and almost feels impossible. Certainly around addiction it does; honesty means dragging this unmentionable thing out into the light so not only we can see it, but others can too. But the same goes for anything: our relationships, our jobs, our friends, our bodies, our spirituality, our children, our spouses, our sexuality, our past. Often times, how we actually feel about these things isn't even accessible to us. Because we've buried it for so long, we've been conditioned for a lifetime to know how we should feel, we look at Facebook and think there's something wrong with us if our lives don't look like that, we compare other people's outsides to our insides. But oh, that honesty is freedom. IT IS THE WAY IN AND THE WAY OUT. It is learned and it takes practice -- daily practice. I started by telling one person the whole truth, and when they didn't run away, when I didn't vaporize, when I felt an actual physical release, a lightening of my spirit, I kept doing it.
This combination of acceptance and honesty has helped me turn a corner, to start to peel back the layers. Piece by piece, skin by skin, day by day.
What Today Feels Like