There are few things I love more than a book list, so here’s one that’s near and dear to my heart. A mix of memoirs, self-help, and psychological/scientific study, these are my favorite books about addiction and sobriety.
The answers to the big questions are always both complicated and simple. There was a tipping point and there were countless things that nudged me toward it. I needed every person, every conversation, every book, poem, and word, every mistake. I needed the hands of thousands of others who'd gone before me, pressing gently on my back, lifting my feet, catching my falls.
How did you manage the first week and first month? I am trying to take things day by day, but I feel overwhelmed by the obstacles in my path including a fear of losing livelihood. Things set me off in a big way. How long do mood swings, insomnia, and this constant dull headache last? What were the tools you used to get through everyday without drinking and still be productive in your work life even when you felt like you couldn't?
I'm one of those annoying people who never shuts up about books. And it's not because I've read so much (I haven't, relatively) but because words are my primary map for life. There are hundreds of books that made a mark on me, but the ones on this list are those I return to again and again and recommend to others most often.
One Monday morning in September, 2013, I posted the picture below to Instagram. The feet at the bottom of the picture are mine; I was riding the train into work. I had worn those shoes (a pair I forgot I owned) that morning because they were more pretty and grown-up than I felt.
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
Today feels lighter. Earlier this week I was struggling. The struggle is much less around drinking - that hasn't seemed like a good idea or been appealing for a while - and more around navigating life without a buffer. Things that I thought once impossible are now possible, like traveling to Vegas for work and not losing my mind, or just simply going out to a restaurant for dinner without feeling agitated. I find it a lot easier just to be in my own skin. Small, daily practices have turned into habits that I don't notice I'm doing, and that is its own miracle.
I know I have only just begun and I am okay with that. Excited, even?
I am excited about the possibilities - and it does feel like anything is possible as long as I stay sober.
I have shit awful days. I wish some things were different. My moods are all over, but through practice - through the simple, but very difficult act of sitting with discomfort and not doinganything to numb out or fix it - I can see my moods as weather.
Mostly, today I just think about today. When that (inevitable) voice pops in to say, You can't do this. No way. Not forever, I remember what my first yoga teacher said when one of his students came to him with the same thought: I cannot stop drinking.
He said, "Sure you can. Are you drinking right now?
... And now?
... And how about right now?"
And then I keep going.
I had a pretty surreal experience one Friday night this summer. One of my ex-colleagues was moving to Austin, and he was having a going away get together in Boston. Like so many social events, I said I'd go thinking, "I'll just go and not drink and it'll be fine and fun and a good way to practice this - no big deal." And then, as the event draws nearer, I got anxious. My mind flip flopped like a fish between going/not going/going but drinking/drinking before and not drinking there/that's crazy - just don't drink!/go with someone sober/no, that sucks, just drink if you want to drink/I don't want to miss out/I'll feel like shit if I drink/he'll be pissed if I don't go/I have to protect myself first/fuck it, I want to party!/fuck it, this isn't worth it/who will be there that knows I'm not drinking?/who will be there that doesn't know?/it's just one night/what's the point?/GAH.
I went for a run that afternoon just before I had to get ready to go – or not – and my thoughts were so loud I actually stopped a few times, bent over, put my hands on my thighs and squeezed my sweaty eyes shut. Please, JUST. SHUT. UP.
Sounds exhausting, right?
It was. It is. Utterly.
I decided to go. I got ready, my mind growing more and more squirrely as I put on my mascara and tried not to look at myself in the mirror too closely. I drove to the train station and actually bought a bottle of wine on the way. I got on the train, took a seat, and put the bottle of wine between my legs. I had an empty Starbucks coffee cup in my purse, which I’d just rinsed out with old water from a water bottle in my car in the parking lot. I sat there – the gorgeous, warm, glowy light of the early evening sun bouncing off the insides of the train car – my knees up against the seat in front of me, feet dangling down and swaying as the train jigged and jagged on the tracks, like pendulums.
I looked at my phone. I could call someone. I could text someone. I paused.
My brain was in an epic tug-o-war.
I texted a friend: “Can you talk? I’m in a state.”
I took a breath and closed my eyes. Just wait.
She responded: “In 20 I can. You’ve got this.”
I took a breath and closed my eyes. Just wait.
The train approached Lynn, then Chelsea. Next stop, North Station. I still hadn’t opened the bottle.
Friend: “Do this meditation. It stops your brain.”
I played the meditation. I sat there fucking meditating on the train with a wine bottle between my legs. The slightest, tiniest crack of space opened.
We arrived at North Station and I walked off the train. I called my ex to hear Alma’s voice and we spoke for a second, but I do not remember what about. I grabbed a slice of pepperoni pizza and I glanced back at the train schedule. In two minutes, there was a train leaving for home. I ran for it, ditching the bottle of wine in the trash with a thrust of anger mid-stride.
I rode the train home feeling about as crazy as I ever had; like I had just walked to the edge of a cliff and hung over but somehow managed to pull myself back up – all adrenaline. I drove home, walked to the beach and took this picture.
It took me hours to come down from that train ride. Although I felt like I’d won that particular battle, I was exhausted with how difficult the war was. I didn’t feel like I’d done it myself. What if my text went unanswered? What if I hadn’t heard Alma’s voice? What if there hadn’t been a train leaving back at just that moment and I had more time to think? What if, what if, what if. It all felt too fragile.
But yet, I did do it. I had one experience where I made the decision to not say ‘fuck it’ first. It was something. It was something.
Start Before You Are Ready
After that experience, I said to my friend, “I can’t write about this stuff until I’m on the other side. I don’t feel like I have the right to.”
She called bullshit on that.
And she’s right, I realize. If everyone who had something to express waited until they were out of the muse experience to express it in whatever form, art would suck or not exist at all. We’re never really out of any experience; the path just changes shape as we grow, or don’t.
So, I’ve been thinking a lot about the paradoxes of recovery.
par·a·dox (ˈperəˌdäks/): a statement or proposition that, despite sound (or apparently sound) reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory.
Life in general is full paradoxes, but they feel especially pronounced and profound in the sobriety journey. Things that seem ‘logically unacceptable’ and counter-intuitive but nonetheless co-exist simultaneously. Thinking through and more importantly, experiencing these paradoxes, underscores the complexity of “getting it.”
I have five of them written down on this piece of paper next to me.
The first: You can't do it alone, and ultimately, only you can do it.
People said to me early on: ask for help. I nodded, yes, I do, ok, I will, I am. But I didn't even know what that meant. I didn't know how to ask for help - not really. I also didn't want to because that meant all kinds of things: admitting I needed it, being honest about how I felt, hearing what someone else had to say when I didn't really think anyone knew better, shedding light on my darkest shame. But also, I just literally didn't know how. Call people? I don't call anyone. I answer my mom's calls because she worries when I don't. I call my ex because we’re raising a child together and there are logistics. But I don’t call people just to talk. And every day? No.
During my worst drinking - and most people will say the same - it was a lonely, solitary show but I didn't really realize how alone I was. I could ask for favors to get myself out of the latest self-imposed tragedy like a lost phone or a car left somewhere miles away, but I could not ask for real help because the truth made me choke. The real truth was unavailable even to me because it was buried under layers of denial.
But I’ve realized through watching others and trying to do it all myself and failing (a lot) both what help looks like and how to ask for it. Sometimes it means calling. Sometimes it means getting on my knees or sitting in a closet at work, closing my eyes, and breathing until I can hear myself breathe. Sometimes it means showing up to a meeting against my will. Sometimes it’s saying, “I don’t know what’s wrong, but I feel fucking crazy” to the first person who picks up. Often times it means saying no – even when it disappoints people, even when I think I should be able to say yes because I’ve always said yes (this is another paradox about selfishness, coming later).
The flip side of this – the ‘only you can do it’ part – comes into play in the one million moments where only you can decide whether or not to drink. No matter how many hours you spend on the phone, in meetings, under surveillance of other people, or asleep, all of us have to venture out into the world solo. Save the bubble of residential treatment programs, we have to go to work, eat lunch, run errands, get on airplanes, stay in hotel rooms, go to parties, walk or drive home and pass by liquor stores and bars and a zillion other places where we could drink. We can’t hide from life (without being very unhappy). So while we can set ourselves up to stay sober, there are a million opportunities to drink. Every other week my daughter lives with her dad, and on those weeks, nobody is watching me. I could drink every night if I wanted to and nobody would have to know. A lot of times I did.
So, a big part of my path has been recognizing that in some situations, I am going to want to drink more than I will want to be sober. No matter how wonderful/proud/clear/hopeful/lucky/peaceful I’ve felt sober, there will be moments I forget all that and I’ll want to say ‘fuck it’ and drink. In these moments, I have to choose - just me. It’s not up to God, or my sponsor, or anyone else. I choose.
This is tricky because it makes it sound like we always have a choice.
From a pure physiological standpoint, when one is caught in the active cycle of addiction and our brains are going haywire, the impulse to drink (or whatever) is as strong as if you were actually in grave danger or starving to death. And once those signals are triggered in the brain, it is very, very, very hard to stop it. (This is an ultra-simplistic way of describing a very complex process.) When you’re in this kind of spiral and the “train has left the station”** it does not feel as if there is a choice. And, in the very late stages of alcoholism or drug addiction the person might actually need the substance to survive.
But physiology aside, the mental and emotional factors that weigh into the decision to drink or not, are complicated and slippery. There are a zillion angles on this, but my mind often goes to something Augusten Burroughs wrote in “This is How”:
“To be successful at not drinking, a person needs to occupy the space in life drinking once filled with something more rewarding than the comfort and the escape of alcohol. This is the thing you have to find. The truth is that people who cannot stop drinking are people who, however guilty they may feel and however dire the consequences, have become so addicted to the drug and the experience that they prefer it to the remainder of their lives. While they may truly want to be sober, they want to drink more.Taking a drink is the opposite of powerlessness. It is taking firm, decisive action to terminate a state of sobriety that feels less satisfying and less convincing than drinking has felt in the past or we imagine will make us feel in the present. It may feel like one is powerless because it’s frustrating to be unable to authentically want the thing you really want to want. But don’t."
Feels less satisfying and less convincing than drinking has felt in the past or we imagine will make us feel in the present. This is pretty powerful, particularly when sobriety is new and uncomfortable and unsettling and shitty. It takes faith that forgoing short-term satisfaction will yield something more satisfying in the long-term. It requires believing other people who promise it’s worth it. It means enduring feelings that feel impossible to endure because you never have. It means digging real deep, daily.
All this to say, recognizing there are moments when I will want to drink more than I want to be sober - but that they pass - has been key and also a product of painful experience. I had to wake up for the Xth time on both sides of the decision tree to feel both outcomes. I have to accept that every day is a new day and just because I didn’t want to drink today, doesn’t mean I won’t want to tomorrow. I have to own both my personal power and my powerlessness over what happens after I drink.
I have to accept that I cannot do it alone, but ultimately, only I can do it.