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.
I was driving my daughter to school earlier this week and absentmindedly reached for my chapstick in the console. I took off the top and as I went to put it on, a few pieces of something poked my lips. I drew it back to investigate, annoyed. Probably my daughter had stuck something in it to be funny. Maybe I’d dropped it in the sand? I turned the tube around, brought it closer, studied it. Oh.
Note: I wrote the below on November 2, 2013 - several months after I'd attended my first meeting, and almost two years before I was able to put together any real sober time. I share this to tell others to keep trying, even if you fail, come and come again.
I recently re-read “Drinking: A Love Story" by Caroline Knapp. I first read it in Hawaii while on vacation with my family over ten years ago, in my early twenties. I was enthralled and terrified then, recognizing myself so clearly in her story. I read it with a mix of pure identification and denial, looking for cues that I was her or not her, honing in on the smallest details that could separate me from someone with a true addiction. I read it fully aware that no part of me intended to stop drinking, but I needed these stories. I collected them like secret friends, attracted them, read and re-read them over the years. Annie Lammot, James Frey, Augusten Burroughs, Stephen King, Mary Karr, Ernest Hemingway - this was my sacred, private circle. They sat on my bookshelves and bedstands, moved through apartments and houses and marriage and motherhood, their passages running through my head like ghosts, reminding me of who I am in my darkest and most lucid hours.
In Caroline’s book, she writes:
“The truth gnaws at you. In periodic flashes like that I’d be painfully aware that I was living badly, just plain living wrong. But I refused to completely acknowledge or act on that awareness, so the feeling just festered inside like a tumor, gradually eating away at my sense of dignity. You know and you don’t know. You know and you won’t know, and as long as the outsides of your life remain intact - your job and your professional persona - it’s very hard to accept that the insides, the pieces of you that have to do with integrity and self-esteem, are slowly rotting away."
You know and you don’t know. You know and you won’t know. This is it. Exactly.
The first time I remember feeling especially in love with alcohol was when I was 17. It was a Sunday afternoon the summer after I graduated from high school. We had a party of some kind at my family’s restaurant - maybe to celebrate my leaving for college - I can’t recall. The staff, who were all my family and friends, were drinking, making whatever we wanted at the bar, passing freely between the restaurant and the back parking lot where we’d set up a barbecue, softball and whatever else. I’d developed a pretty awful eating disorder those past few months of high school and by this time I was drastically underweight, empty and numb and terrified, living in my own private world of obsessive calorie counting and exercise. I knew how many calories were in toothpaste (10, never to be swallowed) and sugar free gum (25, only one piece a day allowed). It was hard to sleep because my bones poked every which way out of me. I was constantly cold and tired. I couldn’t feel a thing; I’d even stopped feeling hungry.
Drinking was a free pass I gave myself. I chose the lowest calorie drinks, of course, and I was mindful of what I was putting in my body for the first one, two, or three drinks. But then the alcohol took over, loosened my white-knuckle grip, activated my hunger, and let me feel through a softer lens. I know most people say they drank to drown out the feelings and thoughts. During this time, my eating disorder numbed me out and booze opened me up. I was a walking Maslow’s hierarchy of needs diagram: I depleted my body of substance so completely that it thought it was in survival mode. I had the sensation of narrowing myself down an actual funnel, to the very bottom, a teeny tiny space where no emotion could find space, every last drop squeezed out like that toothpaste, and all that was left was a simple, razor precise calculation of intake and output. I was disappearing.
In contrast, the alcohol created cracks in the funnel. It did for me what I could not and created a sense of connection, of life, energy, love, romanticism, passion, power.
That afternoon, I remember pouring a ton of rum into a tall glass, my body tingling all over, feeling powerful and tiny, in control and…hopeful. The alcohol melted into me a sense that there were endless possibilities. Instead of starving and terrified I was beautiful and brave. Instead of numb, I felt every single cell in my body at once. I wanted to grab onto it and ride it forever. I remember being washed over with the idea that if I could just stay like this; if I could just hold on to this feeling, I would be alright.
The gravity of this shift cannot be overstated. It’s dramatic and epic and would carry me through nearly 20 years of drinking. Even to talk about it today makes me ache for that moment again the way we ache for a precious lost love. Deep belly longing, through the bones want. Everywhere.
Today, as I write, I feel so sad for that 17 year-old version of me. But I understand. I needed to not feel the full force of life then. I needed alcohol and I needed to starve the feelings out of myself. I was unable to process and cope without those capes, as Glennon describes them.
What I didn’t know then and would not know until recently, was that eventually, alcohol would do the exact opposite of what it made me feel at that time. It would continually and gradually narrow the possibilities, steal my power and chip away at hope. I’ve heard many addicts say that their life got very small and for me it was exactly that. Eventually I couldn’t and didn’t want to do anything because I was hungover and cloudy and pissed off. I couldn’t mother or be a friend or a daughter. I couldn’t write or read. I couldn’t run or do yoga or make myself feel better for even a moment without a drink or the promise of a drink. I was in the waiting room and it was growing darker and colder by the moment.
"By and large, I saw growing up as something that happens to you. In some ways, giving up an addiction involves reversing the equation, understanding finally that growth comes from the inside out, from trying and failing and trying again. When you quit drinking you stop waiting."
It is time to stop waiting.