It’s great more people are talking about this because, frankly, alcohol is stupid. It was time for a change in the dominant paradigm of how we talk about sobriety. But not drinking and a cool IG feed isn’t a light switch to a better life—it takes a hell of a lot more than that.
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.