Saying “no” to drinking alcohol can cause some serious anxiety. Here are three common scenarios and how to approach them.
I mean, you know that commercial with the staples button that says "that was easy.” Getting sober is the hardest-best thing ever, but is there ever a time when you can hit cruise control and sit back and enjoy it? I know I'll never get to push that staples button, but can I at least get one that says, "It's getting easier?”
Can we pause for one second before we crack open the Rosé and think, Where am I going with this? Closer to life or further away? Why? Is this what it means to be alive? Is there some kind of connection to this—the wine, the food, the sex, the 500th Netflix show, whatever—and the disconnection we’re seeing in the world? Maybe?
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.
I got a migraine last Friday that hung around until Saturday afternoon. The kind that pulled me into catatonic sleep – pillow over the head style – and also woke me up several times in the night, from the pain. At one point I woke up parched, head pounding, and thought I was hungover.
A surge of panic rushed through me, followed by the familiar-as-a-second-skin wave of nausea, the “Nonononono. Not again. What happened. Fuck.”
I realized immediately that I wasn’t hungover, but the adrenaline had already released. I closed my eyes and gently put the pillow back over my head while my heart pounded and waves of anxiety lapped against my psyche. I repeated to myself You are ok. You are ok. You are ok. until my heartbeat slowed.
All day thereafter I thought about what it was like waking up that way, over and over again. How grateful I am that I haven't woken up that way in a while. How far away that feeling seems, but how close it is, too. How goddamn slippery the slope was to get here. How lucky I feel to have kept climbing, to have kept reaching, for something I couldn’t even see. How lucky I am that I still want to keep reaching.
I wrote some things down to try and describe exactly what it was like for that year and a half when I didn’t want to be sober but knew I couldn’t keep drinking. When almost every day was an utter struggle. To drink. To not drink. To find my place in the world. To come to terms with what felt like a shit hand I’d been dealt – the unfairness of it, the anger, the loneliness, the incessant questions beating in my heart:
Who will ever love me? Who will want this?
So yesterday I wrote down exactly what made it so hard because I never want to forget. I want to remember so I can say to someone staring down the same uncertainty: I have been there. I remember. I know. Let me tell you.
I flashed back to a Sunday in the fall of 2013.
My husband and I were recently separated. The transitions with our three-year-old daughter were still new. He had just picked her up and the silence that fell after they shut the door was deafening. I was alone. In the house that we lived in. A house much too big for one.
It was a beautiful day. The afternoon light danced all over the empty living room.
I was newly single. I had blocks of free time to myself suddenly. My instinct was to go out, find some pals to play with, to drink away the afternoon, the emptiness, the space.
But I had lost that right. A couple months prior when I very publicly left my daughter unattended while I was drinking (not the first, or the last, of my low points) I lost the right to go drink an afternoon away.
I couldn’t justify saying “fuck it” one more time. Not with a clean conscience. I knew too much.
Suddenly it felt like the world completely closed in on me. Like I could actually hear doors shutting. SLAM! There’s the door to fun. SLAM! There’s the door to love. SLAM! There’s the door to excitement and spontaneity and silliness. SLAM! There’s the door to life as you know it.
I crumbled into a pile of tears in my oversized red chair. I wailed to the empty room and the beautiful light. I cried for a long, long time.
Some might hear this and think, Really? All those things you’d yoked to drinking? And my answer would be, Yes – all those things. Over 36 years of living and 20 years of drinking, I had linked a lot of life to drinking. It had not always been my enemy; it was actually great fun for a long time. Omni-present but not oppressive. A glue in my relationships. An activity that spun up whatever I was doing into something a little more sparkly, giddy, enticing. And now that I was to give it up, I didn’t know where to be, or how, or with whom.
Yet, the saddest girl in the world sitting there on that red chair was the same girl who woke up in her bed almost daily in a panic, shaking, and confused because of drinking. She was the same girl who didn’t know how a night would turn out once she started – truly did not know – and that aura of possibility had turned from excitement to terror somewhere along the way. She was the same girl that was afraid of herself much of the time. Whose hands shook. Whose heart raced constantly. Who couldn't look people in the eye. Who needed caffeine in crazy doses to wake up and long runs to quell her nerves. She was the same girl, and yet, she couldn’t reconcile the two. No conscious connection in the light of day.
So I cried until I couldn’t cry anymore and then I just sat there, staring across my empty living room.
I’m not sure what else happened that day, but I know I didn’t drink. And I know I was very aware of this fact. That’s how the earliest days felt to me and what was so goddam unnerving: I was aware of myself constantly. Like an invisible current of electricity was circulating through me – a low-level, barely detectable, but everywhere current that left me raw and jumpy. Aware of everything I was doing and not doing. Here I am, driving my daughter home from school, not going to get wine. Here I am taking a walk to the park, not drinking. Here I am, cooking dinner, without wine. Here I am riding the train home. Here I am sitting in a meeting. Here I am running, sipping coffee, talking to a co-worker, eating lunch, sending a text, watching House of Cards. Here I am coming out of my skin.
I constantly had the urge to unplug that current. Like someone running around with their hair on fire looking for any body of water to plunge into. I wanted relief. Fast. Now. Sometimes I wanted it with terrifying urgency. A lot of times I just said, Oh, fuck it, and I’d order the wine, go to the liquor store, say yes to going out, or whatever. Because it works. It worked. Drinking let me unplug, say yes, care less, be social, be a part, be free. And even at the end, it still worked, even if only for an hour. But that hour? That time when the chemicals in your brain are rearranging nicely--it’s a relief, and it’s powerful, and I get why we do it.
So for a long time, a year or more, I kept doing this yo-yo thing. In and out, back and forth, ugh and stuck. And I get why. I get why it was so hard. I also wish I could tell that girl on the big red chair a few things about how I feel today.
If I could, this is what I'd say:
I know it sucks, sucks, sucks.
Tell the truth.
The raw current will subside, and in its place you will plug into something beautiful.
The thing you are afraid of giving up -- it is not what holds you together.
You are going to fall apart. This is good.
You are brave.
You are so much stronger than you know.
You wonder who will ever love you? The whole universe.
You wonder who will ever want this? You will.
Just keep going.
This is the beginning, sweet girl, not the end.
Happy Friday, lovelies. There are a few things I’ve been thinking about lately and I wanted to share. The first is about our “drinking” stories. Our relationship with alcohol.
Since I started to talk about my story, a lot of people have come to me.
Most recently, a woman messaged me on Facebook and said, “I don’t know if I have ‘a story’ but reading your words makes me want to look at my own issues.”
My first reaction was, of course you have a story.
I was referring to her life story; she was referring to her drinking one. Either way, it gave me pause. She’s not sure if she’s got a drinking story ‘big’ enough to qualify her bringing it up. A lot of messages I get are like this. Women who don’t see themselves in the image of what we’ve labeled ‘addicts’ and so they question the fact that they’re questioning themselves in the first place. Because once you say, “this might be a problem,” well then what the fuck does that mean? We’ve made it quite weird as a society to talk about our relationships to drugs and alcohol, and it keeps a lot of people quiet and alone (raises hand!). I often wonder what my path would’ve looked like if I knew more women growing up, or in social circles, at work, wherever, that didn’t drink and talked about it as openly as we would, say, our food choices, or our preferences in bed. Not something we need to make unsolicited statements about constantly, but when asked, or if it comes up, or if we feel like talking about it, it’s on the table and fair game and not something we have to save for a special, anonymous group.
A big part of the reason I started talking openly about it is because I want women (or men, I like men too!) to reach out to me, to feel like they can explore the topic without labeling themselves anything. To say, “Hey, this is sort of freaking me out, what do you think?” or “I don’t know what it means exactly, but this is how I’m feeling.”
And another reason – an even bigger one – is that I had this idea that people who didn’t drink must really, truly, not be very happy. Like not really happy. Like it must be always a little less shiny and fun. Sort of boring, or at least less exciting.
I saw being sober as either a choice made based on religion (in which case, no thanks, because you were probably highly judgmental and closed-minded) or a consequence of being an addict who spun out of control, and so you were forced into it.
Either way, I didn’t want it, and I didn’t know anyone who did.
So I've decided to be someone who’s out there in the world – a woman, a mama, a lots-of-things – living a big, whole life – who’s willing to talk about the fact that she doesn’t drink anymore - and more importantly - share why, and what it's like this way. It's not a secret. I don't think it should be.
(Sidenote: I read an interview once with an author talking about the process of writing her first book. The interviewer asked how she came up with the topic for the book? She said she'd searched and searched for the book or the person that was going to save her from herself, the perfect words that would help her through her own struggles, and while she'd found a lot of words and a lot of folks who touched on bits of it, she couldn't find the whole story, stated exactly how she wanted, anywhere. So she wrote the book she needed to read. It's like that.)
Which brings me to my next point: something my friend asked me a few weeks ago:
Do you think anyone has a healthy relationship with alcohol?
I don't think everyone needs to stop drinking and I don't think alcohol is categorically "bad." At all.
I don’t care if you drink. I don’t care if you drink around me, and in fact, please do if you want to, because it makes me feel weird when you stop being you around me.
I am not anti-drinking.
I’m anti- anything that is fucking up your life and keeping you from being free.
I’m anti-playing small.
So, that’s what I’ve been thinking about lately.
Keep talking. Keep reaching. Keep on playing big.
Oh, also, I’m on day 12 of Oprah and Deepak’s 21 Day Meditation Challenge and it’s getting so much better. YAY