Today I am four years sober. I don’t know much, but I know this: you must let the space exist between where you are and where you want to be. You must do everything you can to stay in that space until a new life fills in.
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 question is: Do you wish more people shared their concern with you about your drinking? I have worried about an extended family member's drinking for many years. This family member is functional but drinks far more than is healthy. This person is also very defensive (in general), and I do not think they would be open to hearing concern from me or anyone else.
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.
After one of the first recovery meetings I attended a woman said to me, “You never have to drink again.” I thought, is that supposed to be comforting? Because it makes me want to die.
I didn’t want to not drink again. I wanted to drink normally, passably. I wanted to go back in time and un-fuck-up all the things I fucked up. I wanted to erase the series of bad nights that other people knew about and re-claim my position as fun friend, cool co-worker, up for anything pal, silly sister, good time daughter, mom like all the other moms who can have playdates and wine, girl who can go out for happy hour.
Unfortunately or fortunately the circumstances of how things unfolded for me in the end were public enough that people in my life whose opinions mattered (family, my ex) were invested in my sobriety. And to say they were invested is to say they were at the “enough, or else” place. Specifically, “enough, or you’re not going to have your daughter anymore” which was really the only consequence I cared about.
I was pissed. Piiiiiiisssssssed. Angry at myself for the instances that got me caught and pegged into that place. Angry that I was now set aside into the group of “people with a problem” when pretty much everyone else in my life behaved in ways that arguably edged close to that place, but didn’t quite cross over. Angry that the distinction actually did matter, and my opinions about it meant nothing.
I wanted another option. The two I was faced with were both equally undesirable, impossible: to keep going as I had, or to get sober.
I wanted a 3rd door.
There had to be a 3rd door.
I was going to find the 3rd door.
I tried to un-know the fact there wasn’t one in many ways. I kept close tally of who knew I was and wasn’t drinking and made sure I had a few reserves to hang with. I didn’t let anyone in AA or other sober circles get too close to me. I kept quiet about my going-ons, compartmentalized. I told partial truths to everyone and the whole truth to no one. There was nobody watching me at home now that I was separated, so…nobody was watching me at home. I used the excuse that a few good friends had decided to leave the program, that my dad – after ten years of sobriety – decided to start drinking again and seems to be just fine. I searched for that third door with the desperation and denial of someone in the deep grief of having lost a loved one unexpectedly. Surely there must be another way. Surely they can’t be gone. Surely I will wake up and this will all be different. Surely this is not my life.
But it was. It was my life and this was my thing and I could not undo it or fix it or make it not so.
I had a similar experience when I found out I was pregnant. It's hard to admit that even today, but it’s the honest truth: I didn’t want to be pregnant when I got pregnant. God had a much better plan then, too.
Someone close to me said early on, “So what! So you can’t drink! It’s just alcohol, Laura. Do you know how many people don’t drink?”
First of all, no. No, I don’t know how many people don’t drink, and the last time I checked, we don’t hang out with any of them. I believe we’ve even said jokingly, “I don’t trust people who don’t drink.” Ha ha. Wink wink.
More importantly, this person – who I love, and has nothing but the best intentions for me – enjoys their own drinks, hasn’t gone many days without a few in as long as I can remember, and that hasn’t changed just because of my problem. This same person, who doesn’t have a problem per-se, who can say to me, “so what!” also ain’t givin’ up their own “just alcohol.” What a mindfuck. How unfair. And how little it matters. Turns out, that person’s relationship with alcohol (and everyone else’s) is actually none of my business. This is something anyone who is faced with sobriety has to come to terms with: something like 80% of the population drinks. Some people don’t give a shit about drinking, but most people do, even if a little. When you don’t drink, most people wonder why. Are you pregnant? Religious? Medical condition? Oh, you have a problem. And then it gets weird. This matters much less to me now but it mattered a fuck of lot, for a long time.
Navigating all this sucks horribly. More than anyone who hasn’t faced it can imagine. It’s easy enough to say, “no big deal!” but for someone who has fallen into the problem area, it’s a big, big, big deal. The biggest deal. Telling someone who cares about drinking the way I did that it isn’t a big deal is like telling someone with asthma that breathing through a straw is no big deal. Except asthma doesn’t have the added bonus points of stigma and shame. People who have asthma aren't embarrassed about needing more air. They've probably never lied about it, either.
I write this today from a place of not looking for that third door and with a zillion pounds of compassion and empathy for the version of me that searched for it so hard.
I write this today having accepted there was no 3rd door breath by breath, messily, and over time.
I write this today knowing I couldn’t have arrived here one moment sooner, and that I’ve only arrived for today.
I write this today to tell anyone that has heard “You never have to drink again” and felt like taking a machete to that person’s ears, I know and me too.
I write this today for anyone thinking no third door is some kind of cruel punishment--a consequence of being broken.
I write this today to say the prizes behind door two, the one where you step into the mystery of a whole different life – the one you don’t want and wouldn’t have chosen, not in a million years – are far more fabulous and dazzling than anything you could conjure up behind door number one. Fabulous not in the way Beyonce is on the outside, but like The Buddha was on the inside. Dazzling in the way the sunlight dances on water: magically, simply, gently and all over.
Door number one, the door I’d given anything to stick with, that door sucked. That door was total destruction. That door was a half-life and broken dreams and unrealized potential and a lot of selfishness and fear. But it sure looked pretty; it looked like everything. Door number one was the great palace lie: you come in here, it'll all be alright. Door number one lied to me.
I was so angry there was no third door.
I am so grateful there was no third door.
I might be angry again.
I’ll hopefully stay grateful, too.
But at least now I know.
Two years ago today, the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, I woke up in a jail cell. I got my first DUI. It was coming. I’m not sure how it didn’t happen before. I’d driven buzzed or drunk dozens – hundreds – of times.
The fact I got one is less remarkable than my reaction, which was almost nothing. It wasn’t until I was standing in the Salem court room two days later, shaking from the weekend of drinking and nerves, listening to the police report – which sounded like a dramatic story about someone else – that it started to settle in that I might be kind of fucked.
And still. I dissociated with what was happening like I did a lot of serious things. I found a space between what was happening and myself and I floated up into it.
They read the police report – which took almost ten minutes – and I hovered up above my body a bit. The clerks voice became tinny, cartoonish.
“Miss Gaunt’s eyes were bloodshot and she seemed confused, laughing, when asked how much she had to drink, she started to say something several times and then shook her head, ‘I don’t know. I’m not sure.’”
"Miss Gaunt's blood alcohol level was a .27, well above the legal limit." At home later, I would look up an article on blood alcohol levels. .25-.30 is #9 on a list of 10, with 10 being complete unconsciousness. After that, the description reads, fatal for nearly all individuals.
The laughing was because I had smoked pot – something I rarely did because I couldn't stand the effect. But I had set out that night on a mission to obliterate. I had an entire bottle of wine within the first hour of arriving at my friend’s house. I think I was chasing a hangover, definitely some nerves. I had just started a new job with a big title and weekends without my daughter left me eager and gutted at the same time. I had been talking to a guy that worked as a bartender in Beverly and he was planning on coming over after his shift. I was excited and wanted to speed up time to get to that part, and alcohol is great at speeding up time.
In reality, the circumstances never mattered. But I wanted to believe they did.
I had arrived at my friend’s house in Salem around 6pm. By 7 I was drunk. By 8 I was stoned and drunk. By 9 I was blacked out. I vaguely recall throwing up in the bushes next to their house and deciding to leave without telling anyone, while wearing my friend’s slippers. There were six of us adults there plus kids; mine was with her dad. It was a fun group, our kids were around the same age and we’d often have dinner parties or cookouts or go to the beach and bring the kids and always, there were cocktails. That was the primary reason I was there – not their great company (which it was) or the food (always awesome) – but because I knew they’d be drinking, too.
The fact I attempted to drive is insane on so many levels. It’s a big holiday weekend. People are around, in the streets. Families. Kids. So many awful, horrific things could have happened instead of what did. What did happen was I attempted to navigate myself back to my town and got lost in a maze of streets pretty far off the path home, which I’d driven hundreds of times. I grazed a few “jersey turnpike” barriers on a street and pulled over to check the damage (I only know this because it was in the police report). One of the residents on the street heard the smashing noise and came outside, saw me, clearly not sober, wrote down my license plate and called the Salem police before I drove away.
I didn’t make it far, maybe a block or two, before they pulled me over. They gave roadsides tests (I failed) and went through the motions before they piled me into the back of the cruiser and had my car towed.
When I came to a few hours later in the detox cell, my first thought was that I didn't get to meet up with the bartender. He would be coming to my house - or maybe he'd already come - and I wouldn’t be there. Goddamit. I had no idea what time it was.
I’ll never forget the smell of that cell. Something like urine maybe, except more chemical. Putrid. I slept for several hours on the cold concrete partially covered with a stiff, disposable blanket. It was freezing. When I came to at 3am, my friend’s husband was there to pick me up. He'd been waiting while they held bail for a couple hours. He had their kids at home and I'd completely messed up their night and probably their next day. I was so ashamed, I apologized profusely, but also pretended like it wasn’t all that bad in hopes they'd feel the same. He asked me if I actually got a DUI and I handed him the ticket and said, "No! I just got pulled over!"
The next day was a painful slog. I had to collect my car and have someone else drive it home. My friend wisely suggested I call an attorney and even had a name from one of her friends who'd got a DUI the weekend before. This was comforting. It was no huge deal, right? Holiday weekend. Cops were everywhere. It could happen to anyone. I was fine.
I texted friends who I knew would be supportive and not mortified. Those who would commiserate because they’d been there, or knew someone who had. Those who would say, “Ugh” and “That sucks so bad” and “I’m sorry, so sorry” and “It’ll suck but you’ll get through it.” I didn’t tell the ones who would know that I drove drunk a lot. The ones who would be concerned and had been for some time. I didn’t tell people who knew, like I did - even if it was buried under layers and layers of denial – that I was careening toward a big fucking disaster. I didn’t tell those friends yet.
A few months later, the morning after his wedding, my brother brought it up.
“I was glad when you got a DUI. I hoped it would slow you down.”
But it didn't. And that's why we were talking. That morning there were much bigger horrors to discuss.
That morning I cried hot tears into my coffee as my brother spoke to me seriously, solemnly, letting me know in no uncertain terms that the gig was up.
“You are not someone who can drink, Laura. Some people can. You can’t. If you keep going you are going to lose everything. Including your daughter.”
I can’t imagine how hard it was for my brother to do that. The full weight of our conversation that morning has been delivered to me in chapters, as time and my sobriety unfolds. I have yet to unpack it all; I probably never will.
I have $500 left to pay my attorney from the DUI, which will come out of my account on the 15th of next month. Aside from my skyrocketed car insurance rate (which I’ll have for the next four years) that’s the last of my monetary ramifications from the whole ordeal. In total it cost me about $15,000. I wonder how much $15,000 weighs? More or less than I do? It is among the least heavy consequences of my drinking.
I sat in a recovery meeting last night and halfway through it hit me that the DUI was two years ago. At the end of this particular meeting they give away chips for different lengths of sobriety (30 days, 60 days, 90 days, 6 months, etc.). Our usual “chip girl” is on vacation so I was asked to stand up and do it. A couple people grabbed 30-day chips, one person got a two month one, someone got six months. The last chip given away is a 24-hour to 29 day one. It is silver and I've had dozens of them, but I only kept one, the last one I got.
Four women walked up to the front last night to get these chips. Four beautiful, gorgeous, brave women had the balls – first one, then another, then another, and then another - to walk up to the front of the crowded room as people erupted in whoops and claps. I hugged them each too tight as I pressed the silver chip into their palm, whispering “you are amazing” in their ears.
This morning around 6 a.m. I opened my eyes to flickers of sunlight on my desk and grey curtains billowing with ocean air. I adjusted the pillow to find a cool part and rubbed my feet together rhythmically, breathing in a long sigh of deep, deep gratitude and wonder. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Mary Oliver’s words floated into my mind:
It is a serious thing
just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in the broken world.
NOTE: This post is a guest post on Hip Sobriety's blog for Outside The Rooms: Hip Sobriety and Alcoholics Anonymous: An 11 Part Series.
A couple months ago, I listened on the phone as Holly read to me a draft of a long, thoughtful, honest piece about her experience with AA and its part in her recovery journey.
When she finished I took a long, deep breath. Holly’s story is gorgeously brave – just like her. She’s an example of the deep well of power we can find in the softness of our human hearts. She is also fiercely fierce.
She's been sober for two years, and has had a mostly negative experience with AA. Whenever she describes her story I find myself getting defensive, which is interesting.I think it’s natural to want to defend things that mean something to us, especially when those things feel so connected to our own safety. But I also get it. While my experience has been very different, I get it. I’ve had mixed feelings about it at many points. I’ve wrestled with the language, the people, the groupthink mentality, all of it. I’ve wished I could be one of those people who walked into the rooms and never questioned a thing, but I’m not.
But today I’m grateful that I don’t fuss too much with how I feel about AA. How I feel about it – like many things – changes all the time. Maybe a little bit like a long-term relationship, when you’ve reached that place where your love and commitment to the thing, the respect, the reverence that you’re in the hands of the Universe anyway, trumps the inevitable and lesser ups and downs. The benefits far outweigh the perceived costs. Are there things that bug me? Sure. But my relatively short experience has taught me that when I put myself in the middle of AA, I don’t drink. When I go to meetings regularly I feel infinitely better, emotionally and spiritually. When I don’t, I start to feel jiggy. I don’t totally get the connection, but that’s fine. I also don’t get how electricity works.
I spent a lot of time intellectualizing my thoughts and dissecting my feelings about AA and you know what? None of that helped me stay sober. Because what I was actually intellectualizing was my drinking – and that’s not an intellectual exercise.
So what if the same annoying person drones on for twenty fucking minutes about the story you’ve heard 100 times before, again. There’s someone who might need to hear it. Patience. Tolerance.
So most of the language in the big book is male-centric and simplistic – maybe even offensive to me as a writer. It was written in the 1930’s (and yes, it could use an update), but the underlying message is still brilliantly beautiful and profound. Take what works – leave the rest.
So there are some weirdos, crazies, and people I find incredibly annoying in the program. Welcome to life. Everywhere. By and large, the majority of people I’ve come across in the rooms of AA are wonderfully compassionate, surprisingly funny, and exceedingly honest. They possess the rare qualities I most love in human beings who’ve gone through and survived some kind of hell: humility, tolerance and a deep respect for life. It took time to find my crew and appreciate this vibe. It took a lot of shopping around meetings, sitting through bad ones, tolerating annoyances, time. But I can honestly say that when I’m in those rooms I feel a sense of calm and hope I don’t feel anywhere else.
It’s also important to note I do a lot of other things to keep moving forward, and by no means do I think AA is the only way to get and stay sober, nor do I think it’s the best way for everyone. It’s just what has worked for me so far. The other things I do – some of which are technically part of the program (meditation, prayer, honesty with others, service work) and some of which are technically not (yoga, running, lots of sleep, baths, writing, engaging in any creative outlet possible) have only been encouraged and enhanced by what I’ve learned in the rooms and through the people.
When Holly finished reading me her post I said I was bummed she’d had such a bad experience, because mine has just been so different. She asked if I’d write about my experience and I said, of course.
So I distilled why I believe AA has worked for me so far into three primary points: the people, ritual, and God energy.
The people. I found a tribe.
We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community. – Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness
Being a human can be lonely. Being a human with an acute alcohol addiction is desperately, painfully lonely. By the end of my drinking I was surrounded by people, but nobody knew my insides. Nobody knew how much I was drinking, the crushing shame and anxiety I felt because of the things I did when I drank, how important booze was to me, how much I relied on it to feel normal, social, human. Even I didn’t know. We go to such great lengths to protect the addiction – such great lengths – that over time, incrementally, despite ourselves, we create a separate world with a population of two – us and the alcohol. While we exist in, manage, and are part of entire lives that include families and co-workers and big, vibrant circles of friends and houses and plans we are constantly, dreadfully alone.
In the rooms of AA I heard people describe my insides exactly. I heard people speak in a way I thought impossible. I’ve had more than a few friends say that while sitting in their first meeting, they were sure the person who took them there had tipped off the room, told them about their story, because the things people were saying were just too familiar, too close to their own experience, how could they possibly know? It’s funny but true. Of course nobody tipped them off. As wonderfully unique and special we all are, our human experiences are collectively, boringly similar. Love is love. Pain is pain. Fear is fear. Addiction is addiction. The thing Dr. Bob and Bill Wilson captured in the Big Book is the essence of what it’s like to experience alcoholism – the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of the disease – and every time we sit in a meeting we get the chance to recognize and be recognized, to hear how others have walked through it, to nod our heads and say, Yes, me, too. There is magic in Me, too. Me, too is the antidote to loneliness.
Many people need desperately to receive this message: 'I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.' – Kurt Vonnegut
So by sitting there, listening and talking, I found a tribe. I now have a large circle of people I know from AA – some are very close friends, some are acquaintances, some are just familiar faces – all sharing this common, bizarre experience. I know so many people I wouldn’t have otherwise come across in my everyday life. People who used to be homeless, CEOs, Broadway dancers, insurance executives, total misfits and weirdos, wonderful humans. I hang out with these people inside and outside the rooms. When I first came in, they invited me to parties – sober parties – and I saw people having actual, real fun without drinking (gasp!). I was invited to dinners, to coffee, to run 10Ks and go on ski trips. They said, come along with us. They let me be weird and self-conscious and shaky like the most awkward days of junior high. When I said I was angry about everything, uncomfortable as fuck and sad, they nodded their heads, I know and I have been there and Me, too. They told me to call whenever and picked up their phone when I did and didn’t ask why I was calling. They smiled when I showed up at a meeting after going missing for a few weeks and didn’t say, Where have you been? But instead, I’m so happy to see you.
Anne Lamott talks about how at some point in her recovery process, she had developed relationships with so many people who were invested in her sobriety that she couldn’t just disappear anymore. If she went off the radar for more than a day or so, she’d get calls or people would show up at her house. She called them “The Interrupters.” I have a crew of them myself now, and 90% are folks I met in AA. They keep tabs. They send texts and call. They show up. They don’t let me disappear, even if I want to. This is a tribe and it’s important in sobriety (and life) because we humans get lost easily, we imagine ourselves alone, we float off to the edge. And the edge is where you can fall off.
Lest you think this sounds like a total love fest, let me be clear: it’s not all a love fest. Sometimes when I’m sitting in meetings I press the palms of my hands into my eye sockets willing someone to shut up. I’ve walked out of meetings because I can’t listen for one more second longer. I’ve wanted to punch certain people right in the face, make-out with others, and sometimes I just shake my head. But underneath all that I get access to some bigger, deeper realm where none of that shit matters – the “good” or the “bad” – because I know we’re all doing something so much more important just by sitting there, being totally imperfect.
The ritual: patient action
The ritual of meetings and the emphasis on action is another reason AA works for me. For a couple reasons:
I am lazy and dislike routines. I want to do things on my time, when I want to do them, the way I want. Which is fine and all, except when it comes to changing behaviors, paying bills and getting my kid to school on time. Particularly now, in early recovery, the simple practices of AA has been crucial. I remember when my first sponsor told me to call her every day. I thought, Every. Day?! I don’t talk to anyone EVERY DAY. But after a while (and enough falling on my face) I figured out why: recovery is a daily thing. Like one of the old timers said, “You wouldn’t skip a shower today because you took one yesterday would you?” (Well, yes. Yes I would skip a shower today, but point taken.)
It’s the same as any behavior we want to change. We must rewire our brains with new behaviors and that means action. Not talking about it, thinking about it, writing about it, but actually doing it. Sitting your ass in a chair and doing it. Over and over.
I also think it’s important to say, nothing “bad” happens if I don’t go to a meeting or call my sponsor every day, the program doesn’t require anything except a desire to stop drinking – these are just suggestions. Yet things seem to go a hell of a lot better when I follow those suggestions. At minimum, I stay sober. And at best, I help someone else do that.
Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness (thinking) that created them. - Albert Einstein
ALSO: I have amnesia. We all do. We romanticize horrible relationships when they're over, we revere the dead even when they were assholes, and we forget the negative consequences of our behavior, over and over again. But when you have amnesia about a thing that can cause as much damage as drinking, it’s actually dangerous. When our neural pathways have been formed for years upon years (for me, 20!) to do a thing -- and that thing is so closely associated to daily living (laundry, dinner, restaurants, sex, 5:00 pm Monday - Friday (happy hour!), sporting events, sunny weather, fall weather, snowstorms, holidays, birthdays, thirsty Thursdays, celebrations, tough days, whatever) a hell of a lot of rewiring needs to happen.
When I first knew I had to quit drinking every day felt so fragile. Like I could step on a crack in the sidewalk and end up drunk again. Having a place to go and physically put by body was helpful and necessary. The rituals of going to a meeting, reading the preamble, hearing the same words, seeing familiar faces, the format of meetings, the daily-ness of it, I needed it. I like it. They say, move the feet and the heart will follow and I have found that to be the case.
Every act or decision we make that supports life supports all life, including our own. The ripples we create return to us. – David R. Hawkins, Power vs. Force
The third reason AA works for me is that in those rooms I find what I call “God energy.”
This has nothing to do with religion.
It’s the energy I feel when I am near the ocean, lost in a beautiful book, watching my daughter sleep, teaching yoga, in the writing flow. It’s an elevated energy - the vibration of hope and change. I want as much of it as I can get, on a daily basis, because it makes me feel better. And not in a bottle-of-wine-or-six donuts-way, but in a long, restful sleep and a hug-from-your-favorite-aunt way. It reminds me I am connected to you. It reminds me how strong and also how powerless I am.
I wrote the following four months ago, which sums it up better than I can now.
I know AA isn't for everyone. There are many parts of it that kept me away and still turn me off sometimes. I know it isn't the only way, but if I look at my path over the past year, I feel deep gratitude that it exists.I thought about it as I was sitting at a meeting tonight, feeling at ease, comfortable in my skin and at peace for the first time all day. Just listening and nodding and smiling at faces I know and strangers' too.Why I go now is the same reason I kept going back to the yoga mat so many years ago and still do today as often as possible. It is the same reason I bury my nose in my daughter's head and smell her 100 times a day. It is the same reason I never tire of looking at the ocean. I go because I feel God in those rooms. I feel God in all the broken bits of us sitting in those chairs. Because I can see the fear in someone's eyes when they are very new, and the way the room holds them. I can feel my own brokenness being seen and understood and thus, some kind of alchemy taking place. I can speak my own voice, even when it shakes. I see people hold space for one another, even when they are irritated, annoyed, angry, or disagree. I see people belly laugh and weep. I see people change…actually change. And it feels like witnessing miracles.So yeah, that's why I go. Because I need to be with God to remember who I am.
[NOTE: This post is a guest post on Hip Sobriety's blog for her "Outside The Rooms: Hip Sobriety and Alcoholics Anonymous: An 11 Part Series. To read the rest of the series, go here."]
Primary photo credit: Larissa Coutihno on Flickr