1 ginger beer, 1 glass cyanide-looking tarragon flavored Russian soda pop, 1 glass vanilla orange Russian soda pop, 2 glasses liquid raspberry kompot, 1 shot bitters, 3 cups hot black tea, 1 non-alcoholic beer (to wash down the salted fish). No water. Not one sip of the beer, wine, champagne, vodka or cocktails that flowed for six hours straight.
I never could wrap my head around people who loved being pregnant because that’s when they felt their healthiest. Pregnancy made me feel like shit. Besides the nausea that felt exactly like an endless hangover, I spent most of the first trimester wanting to crawl out of my own skin. I tried to commiserate with others who had been pregnant—“You know that feeling where you desperately need to change the way you feel with a drink or a pill but you just CAN’T? THAT’S the worst part of pregnancy!”—and they just stared back. Years later I would come to recognize that sensation as a symptom of untreated alcoholism, not pregnancy.
Even though I felt like garbage, I treated my pregnant body better than I ever had before. I took special prenatal supplements with some kind of oil for the baby’s brain, I ate piles of fruits and veg, I exercised to the very end, eliciting stares and comments at the gym. I slept, no small miracle for a former insomniac (thanks, drugs) and long-standing night owl. I did take a bunch of Category C medications and drink daily caffeine and eat sushi and deli meat and junk food because I’m no saint, but you guys, I didn’t drink! There was a lot of talk in my circles at that time about how a half a glass of wine on special occasions was *just fine* in the second and third trimesters, but I knew that I could not trust myself with half a glass. Not even with a baby inside.
I gave birth to a healthy baby via Caesarean and loved my body like never before. I was a BEAST. I could grow a human and undergo major abdominal surgery and keep that human alive. I resumed drinking as soon as I got home from the hospital, obviously, but continued, for the most part, to treat my body pretty well. I was exclusively breastfeeding, after all. I was inordinately proud of the fact that I was able to pump massive quantities of milk at work, way more than my baby needed, and nurse her morning and night. It upset me when she weaned at fifteen months. The World Health Organization recommended breastfeeding to age two at the time and I wanted to make it at least that long without needing to rely on a cow for milk. That’s what I was for.
I’d read some studies say the ideal spacing between kids is three years so I decided we should start trying to have another child when the oldest was two. I assumed I would get pregnant easily since that’s what happened the first time. When that didn’t happen, I was pissed. I took my anger and disappointment out my body. I dug up the pills that were miraculously still around from the c-section and took those. I drank. I drank especially in the days leading up to my period because I knew I’d have to stop when I got a positive pregnancy test. When the tests came up negative, I drank more. Why shouldn’t I? It’s not like I was pregnant. By that point I knew without question I shouldn’t be drinking but I drank anyway. Alone and in secret and in increasing quantities at increasingly inappropriate times.
This is what happens to women steeped in a toxic culture that says (1) a woman’s worth is in her fertility and (2) alcohol is the answer to a woman’s problems. My body failed me by not making a baby on demand, and I tried to drown.
In my unhappiness, I abused my body in other ways, ways that are far more subtle that I only recognize with hindsight. I skipped meals. I refused to replace my baggy suits with ones that fit because I might be pregnant soon. I sacrificed sleep at the alters of work and television.
It literally never occurred to me that I might do anything at all–let alone something fun or healthy or interesting–with a body that wasn’t pregnant or nursing. I never even thought about running that second marathon, the one I’d been wanting to do for years, the one I’d been training for and cancelled when I discovered I was pregnant the first time.
It was during one of my final few drunks that I was scrolling through Facebook (because being a drunk is actually really lonely and sad and boring) and saw that my friend M had signed up for a Tough Mudder and was looking for teammates. “Nahhhh, not for me,” I thought about both the invitation and the race. I was running semi-regularly at the time, but I didn’t do team sports or anything that required upper body strength. I scrolled on.
The day after my last drunk, I was supposed to have dinner with M but had to cancel because when 5:00 rolled around I was still too hungover to get out of bed. We rescheduled for the next weekend. Seven days later, exactly one week into shaky sobriety, I sat across from M at a fancy pub with a Diet Cola in one hand and a pork shank in the other and told her I’d run the insane race.
We started training together, meeting at a local playground at seven o’clock on freezy Sunday mornings to do tricep dips and assisted pull-ups on the monkey bars, jump squats onto picnic tables, and crunches in the mud. It was a drag and felt somehow like both way too much effort and ridiculously not enough to be putting into training for a six-mile obstacle race. As the weeks wore on, though, I felt worried that I still couldn’t do a pull-up on my own but proud that I had yet to succumb to the Saturday night impulse to text M and cancel. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d made a commitment and actually followed through on something that I didn’t have to do. Showing up felt good.
Four months after my last drunk I did the race with M and her friends (a triathlete and a U.S. Marine, natch). Two of us were injured so we had to walk a lot of the course but we completed every obstacle, from army crawling through ice-cold mud inches under barbed wire (Kiss of Mud) to hauling ass up a slick quarter pipe (Everest 2.0) to scaling twelve-foot wooden walls (Berlin Walls). My teammates and I took turns yanking each other up and over barrier after barrier, carrying each other piggyback in the heat, and trudging side-by-side through bacteria-laden swamp water to finish filthy and triumphant. Aside from giving birth, I was never so proud of or in love with my body.
I was also hooked. I started running as often and as long as I could after that. My weekend mileage hit the double digits enough that I figured I should get some credit for it, so I registered for and completed my second marathon (my first in seven years) that fall. I got bored with endless long slow runs added speed work to my routine. When I found myself with overuse injuries, I swam and cycled and tried all kinds of yoga. When I healed, I returned to running reinvigorated, renewed, overjoyed at simply being able to run without pain. I tossed out a few 5Ks to raise money with co-workers and with the family on Thanksgiving. I ran through cold wet Chicago springs, muggy Chicago summers, gorgeous Chicago falls, and brutal Chicago winters. I trained with weights. I finished my third marathon, this time fast.
I’d be lying if I said there aren’t days when I want a drink or ten. But one of the many things that helps me to go to sleep sober is thinking about how good I’m going to feel on the trail or the treadmill the next morning if I don’t. These days, there is always free beer on the other side of a finish line. I’m not lying when I say that after a race, after I’ve put my body to the test and seen it rise to the challenge, those are the times I want a drink the very least. I’m too happy.
I’d be lying if I said there aren’t days when I want another baby. But one of the many things that keeps me from sliding into grief is thinking how good it feels to push my body to do things I want to do.
When I look back on my year of relapse and trying to trying to conceive, the absurdity of what I was doing to myself is almost enough to make me believe in a higher power that saved me from getting pregnant at a time when I wasn’t capable of carrying a child. Of course, that doesn’t explain why I’m not pregnant now, with my 2.5 years of sobriety and a solid recovery program. However, when I look back on the many, many moments over those 2.5 years that I experienced pure joy in moving my body, in getting stronger, faster, freer, well, it’s almost enough to make me believe that my body is a gift for me, not for babies. My body’s worth is in what it can do for me, not you or him or God or future generations. I am meant to enjoy this body for what it can do, not to mourn what it can’t. I can’t get pregnant and I can’t drink but I can and will eat and dance and swim and stretch and fuck and run and run and run.
[You can find my first What A Body’s Good For essay here.]
I sit in recovery groups, literal circles, and listen to people talk about their feelings. “I couldn’t feel my feelings,” they say, shaking their heads in disbelief, like that explains everything. Or they say, “I can sit with my feelings now,” and nod in satisfaction, like it’s all better now. Newcomers confess with their heads hung low, “I’m feeling my feelings, and I don’t like it,” like it’s the worst thing that ever happened, or they say, “I’m learning to feel my feelings,” like it’s the fucking best. Men and women with a decade or more of sober time, people who figured out how to drink but still don’t like the choices they are making, let the air whoosh out of their mouths and put it out there, “I’m still numbing,” with chocolate or exercise or home renovations, like looking for something that takes a person outside herself is a problem in and of itself, as if those things could do a fraction of the damage drugs and alcohol did to their lives.
I get this and I don’t. Of course I used drugs and alcohol to change and amplify and dull my feelings. But I have never suffered from a lack of feelings and I did not have to “learn” to feel them. I always felt them, for better or worse, usually worse. For years, I thought anxiety was God or my gut telling me I’d fucked something up. For practically my whole life, I thought the crushed feeling in my chest meant I was special and sensitive and too good for this world. I thought the sinking in my stomach meant I’d been grievously wronged and needed to do something drastic to put things right–cut someone out of my life or scream or painstakingly explain why people had things all wrong. I thought a racing mind meant I had to act, now. I thought burning shame meant I was the one who did wrong. All those feelings had to mean something. They couldn’t be for nothing, right?
Wrong. If there is anything I’ve learned from therapy and meditation and working the steps, it’s this: my feelings are not to be trusted. They change, for one thing. Like, all the time. For another, as often as not, they are a product of fucked-up, dysfunctional thinking. Frankly, I don’t see the value in giving them any time or attention at all. And I certainly don’t see the harm in throwing myself into a good book or a long run or a new project or a box of cookies of it makes it all a little less painful. Fuck my feelings.
Maybe I’m not enlightened. Maybe I’m in denial. Maybe all this repression is going to blow up in my face in a year or ten. Maybe I’m not sober, just “dry.” Or maybe this is what it means to be human.
I finally went to the OB-GYN last week. I hadn’t been since my post-partum check up, six weeks after my daughter was born. That was four years ago. The CNM scrunched up her face when I told her. “You haven’t had any lady care for four years?”
It pisses me off that people are often blasé about the fact that men in their twenties and thirties go to the doctor pretty much never but women who don’t go the the OB-GYN every year are seen as irresponsible. “I thought the USPSTF changed the recommendation for pap screening from one to three years?” It was half question, half half-hearted explanation. That wasn’t why I hadn’t been in, but it made me feel better. “Plus, I’m not on birth control,” I added, realizing I hadn’t adequately justified my hiatus from reproductive health. That one hit a little closer to the truth of the matter. I stopped taking hormonal birth control the year before I got pregnant and never went back on, and absolutely relished the freedom. Yes, I realize that the pill that tied me to a doctor and flatlined my sex drive is the same one that liberated me and millions of other women. I can hold onto both of these truths at the same time. The CNM tucked her leg up onto the chair, tucked a chunk of pink hair behind her ear, chiding me quietly as she pulled up a new chart: “That may be, but you still need exams.”
It’s not like I’d been neglecting my health. I am in tune with my body to an almost freakish degree and I love medicine of both the Eastern and Western variety. Almost as soon as I went back to work after maternity leave, my stress-induced TMJ flared up. I tried acupuncture first, but it didn’t do enough to justify ducking out of work for an hour at a time, so I turned to an internist who was so cute I decided he would be my first-ever adult primary care physician. What I wanted was painkillers. What I got was a referral for PT that ended up being exorbitantly expensive and inordinately time-consuming and not covered by my insurance.
Later that year, I went back to the internist about a strange rash. I made big plans to tell him about my anxiety, too, but couldn’t find the words. I’d never told anybody how my chest tightened up every day when I left the office, or how my stomach roiled before I left the house. Was that anxiety? Was it bad enough to warrant medication or did I just want to get high? What I wanted was to get the ball rolling toward a prescription for Xanax. What I got was a diagnosis of stress-induced eczema.
A few months after that I huffed a chemical inhalant in the middle of my work day. I think the high lasted a few hours but it was hard to tell when it wore off because my head didn’t come back to my body. I remained in a dissociative state that the internet told me was called depersonalization for six days. I remembered that I had a primary care doctor and called his office to beg for an appointment. A different doctor in the same practice group squeezed me in. “Are you under a lot of stress?” he asked, shining a light into my eyes. I nodded. He asked me to turn my head from side to side. “Do you find yourself crying?” “Mhm.” My eyes welled up. What I wanted was somebody to tell me I didn’t have brain damage. What I got was instructions to come back for a full blood workup the next week.
I went to a therapist instead.
I went through a round of CBT.
I got back to running.
In short, I started to get right mentally, physically, and spiritually.
Nine months after I quit drinking, I ran a marathon. A particularly severe bout of post-race tendonitis drove me back to the primary care physician. I’d sustained enough strains and sprains in my two decades as a runner to know that ice and rest would do the trick, but the pain in my hip was bad enough that I figured I could benefit from talking to a physical therapist who specialized in running injuries. Of course, I never would have booked the appointment if I didn’t think I there was a chance I could also get drugs. In the few minutes it took to schedule an appointment online, the pink cloud that had been carrying me for months dissipated. I went from happy sober person, chirping away in meetings about how great it felt to be so present for my family during the holidays to walking zombie. I went from wanting to get better quickly to hoping for something serious–a fracture or a tear. I didn’t think about calling my sponsor. I didn’t think about what I’d do when the pills ran out. I couldn’t think about anything but the possibility of getting high again. I obsessed about what I needed to do to make it happen. The next day, I hobbled to the office and told the doctor with a straight face that the pain was an eight. I told him I could barely walk. I got him worried enough that he wrote out an order for an x-ray, which is when I knew the jig was up because there was a minuscule chance I might be pregnant that I couldn’t ignore, given how long my husband and I had been trying to have a second kid. The doctor sent me home with no x-ray, no drugs, and prescription for ice and rest. “Come back if it still hurts when you get your period.” Fuck.
Once you’ve developed a taste for pharmaceuticals, every doctor’s office is a street corner, every appointment a seedy transaction, every honest ailment immediately supplanted by symptoms of the most plausible path to opiate relief. And when you are sober, every ache is an invitation to go back out. It’s easy to pretend you’re not flirting with relapse because sometimes people need medicine. With my history, the question of how prescription drugs fit into sobriety should be black and white but when I try to hold a picture of my sober life still in my head, there is so much blank space I start filling in the gaps with gray. Of course, most doctors aren’t handing out controlled substances like candy anymore. When you are an ex-pillhead, that almost doesn’t matter. The possibility alone is enough to throw you off course. It’s easier to avoid doctors altogether.
So that’s why I haven’t been to OB-GYN. I can’t trust myself to go in for a pap smear and not drum up enough undiagnosable premenstrual pain to walk out with a low-grade narcotic that will start the slow unspooling of my life. If you jump through enough hoops, the drugs will come. That’s how, last month, I ended up driving myself away from the hospital at 2 AM on a Sunday with a clean bill of health and a unnecessary prescription for Norco tucked in my bag, mind racing with thoughts like:
“A tranvaginal ultrasound is a steep price to pay for a week’s worth of pills;” and
“I guess nobody ever accused a junkie of driving a hard bargain;” and, most importantly,
“What the fuck am I going to do when these pills run out?”
The next 24 hours were mental torture. I had drugs, but I also had a head full of AA, which means I am utterly incapable of convincing myself that taking even one pill (or drink) is not a big deal. I know where one pill (or drink) goes. I’ve been there before and it’s hell. There is no easy way back if you even get a chance to come back.
Of course I was going to fill the prescription anyway. I went to four pharmacies that day. One rejected my (extremely common and accepted everywhere) insurance. The other three were closed, two of them within thirty minutes of me showing up. By 8 PM I had nowhere to go but my usual Sunday night candlelight meeting. Somebody said something about their daughter and I remembered (for the first time in days) that mine was turning four soon and that if I took those pills, I’d be drinking or using or withdrawing on her birthday. I knew enough about myself to know there was simply no way I would not be a fucking mess. I went home knowing what I had to do, knowing exactly how good I would feel when I did it, but still unwilling. The next morning I woke up early and, without giving myself time to think the decision through, turned on the stove and stuck my hand with the paper prescription into the burner. The night before, a doctor friend had told me to just rip it up, which I guess would have done the trick, but I needed this thing gone. The burn was not clean; I was.
The unexplained pain that had precipiated my ER visit disappeared that day.
I kept the OB-GYN appointment I had scheduled a few days earlier anyway. I’ve been trying to have another baby for two years and have reached the point that I can’t pretend doctors don’t exist. The CNM asked me questions as she filled in my chart. “What was the first day of your last period?” “How many days is your cycle?” “Do you drink?”
I looked up from the paperwork I was working on and looked her in the eye and told her what I’ve before never told a medical professional because I was not willing to burn bridges I might want to cross later: “No. I haven’t had a drink since January 30, 2016. I have a history of substance abuse, mostly painkillers and weed. I can’t mess around with that stuff.”
“Congratulations!” she said.
When I left, I felt relieved. Not because I think I am finally going to get pregnant but because I finally have a doctor I can go back to without tearing open my old wounds.
Today is one of those jaw-unhingingly gorgeous days. Seventy-five and sunny with a breeze blowing off the river, I want to suck it and let the juice run down my neck. Women in thigh-grazing dresses. Men in shorts. Scrappy dogs tugging at leashes. Tourists clogging up bridges. High-rise residents sprawled in muddy grass. Old men in khaki vests and fishing boats.
Usually, for me, season changes carry with them a whiff of oblivion. Spring was for getting stoned in the bushes, baking in the sun. Later, it was for summer wheats, Bell’s with a slice of orange. My family moved to Phoenix when I was six years old and my mom used to call me outside to smell the orange blossoms. I inhaled, barefoot on the concrete, taking in the trees and the sight of flowers brushing a cinder block wall, and went back inside with itchy, bloodshot eyes. I was allergic.
I pass a dozen happy hours on the way to the train after work. Today, the windows are thrown open and I catch the sound of revelry and smell of hops. Some sober women are undone by the scent of red wine; for me, it is beer and belonging. My best drinking dream involves sipping an IPA on a porch full of friends drenched in the setting sun. It’s pure gold, and pure fantasy. I never sipped anything, and the day always turned dark. Also, I drank alone.
Today, I walk by eleven bars before I think to breathe in, hard, like I’m after a second-hand high. The beer smells so good. Better then orange blossoms. I turn my head, chance a glance at a tabletop of half empty glasses, and I keep walking. I’m not itchy anymore, but I know I’m allergic.
The day is so beautiful that during the lunch hour the riverwalk outside my building is lined with office workers, kicking off their shoes, thumbing the pages of a book, picking at a salad. My feet know better than my head where serenity lives, though, and they march me into the loop, under the elevated train tracks, and into the non-descript building that houses the AA central office. You can’t even see the water, let alone feel the breeze on your skin. I walk inside and make a beeline for the elevator that will take me to the third floor and the windowless meeting room. I grin and wave at the doorman.
“You know where you’re going, miss?”
“Yes. I really do.”
You don’t grow up Christian in America without hearing a thing or twenty about the “straight and narrow” path. As a rebellious Mormon, I loathed this concept. I could imagine nothing more dreary and oppressive than a life spent following a road laid out by someone else, following orders, moving forever forward while looking longingly at the roads less travelled.
As a perfectionist who never could manage to live up to that trait, I hated the concept equally but for a different reason. A narrow path offered too many opportunities to fall off. I’d never make it, so better to never bother stepping on, better to pretend I never wanted anything to do with your stupid straight road anyway.
A few months after I stopped attending the Mormon church, I started hearing the phrase crop up in recovery meetings, usually from old timers describing how the path of sobriety narrows the longer they’re on it. This scared me. Had I stepped into a way of living that was going to end up feeling as oppressive as Mormonism?
Today, more than a year into this life, I found some clarity around this concept. The straight and narrow path isn’t the one laid down and blessed by the church. It’s the path that carries each of us forward. Once you’ve found purpose and direction, it becomes increasingly intolerable to live in a manner that is inconsistent with those things. Your mind and body and soul won’t tolerate straying for long. It’s too painful. When my mind wanders to relapse, my chest tightens. When I entertain the notion of going back to the old way of living for much longer than that, my cells start screaming apart. It’s not freedom; it’s chaos. The narrowing of the path is the price we pay for finding it. The cost of learning how to live is that you can’t stop doing it.
My road doesn’t pass through the same valleys as yours. Mine is a highway through the middle of the US. The road is mostly well-paved paved but it cuts a dusty path through the desert and winds through a few mountain towns.
Our roads don’t take us through the same cities or countries or churches. Some roads don’t have a church on them at all. They are all long, though, and I suspect that our maps are all the same. Do unto others. Love your neighbor. Lose yourself. And I’ll be damned if we don’t all end up in the same place.
I am so, so sorry.
I know what it’s like to be betrayed by your body, to rage against it. In Feb 2014, I relapsed after 9 months of not drinking because I did not know how to cope with the fact that I couldn’t just will my body to make another baby. I wanted to disconnect from myself and from my desire to grow my family so badly that drugs seemed like the only option. I spent the rest of that year trying to get pregnant and cycling between trying very hard to be good for two weeks at a time and then promising myself that I could get drunk when my period came. I usually ended up getting drunk before that even because I knew that as soon as a pregnancy test confirmed it, I’d have to quit. When my period came late, as it did often but only after we started trying, only after 15+ years of running like clockwork because biology is a funny bitch, I drank even more, in preemptive defense, to kill my disappointment by killing my hope.
I know what it’s like to blame yourself. Almost two years later, I still can’t get pregnant, and it is an ongoing battle to fight off the looming despair and the lure of the idea that infertility is my punishment for not treating my body better, for drinking and drugging away my prime fertile years, for succumbing to anxiety, for losing sleep to work and worry.
I know what it’s like to hate your husband for not giving you what you want, which is permission to break a promise you made to yourself, to want to leave a good man so that you can get shitfaced.
The good news is that I also know what it’s like to be solid enough in my sobriety that even the worst news can’t derail it. I know what it’s like to take care of myself, with food and sleep and hot fucking showers (and I am somebody who still recoils at the phrase “self-care” and the cheesy image of a woman in a bath inhaling essential oils). I know what it’s like to say no, not today to the invitation to wallow in grief and what-ifs. I know what it’s like to keep moving forward, with dark humor and grim determination and a tiny bit of hope and pint of nothing but a ginger beer.
I’m proud of you for not drinking, and for looking for help instead. You will make it through this and be all the stronger, more complicated, and more interesting for it. You’ve got layers, baby. Let’s keep them dry.
All my love,
Autumn is a mindfuck, a veritable minefield of triggers. I rake through memories of seasons past and can’t unscramble what is true from how I felt.
I am spinning madcap in the front yard with my brother on Thanksgiving, pitching back and forth, falling in the leaves, numb fingers fumbling the kid-sized football, wild from chugging Martinelli’s. We are only pretending to be drunk, but hanging on the verge of adolescence, outside without our parents on a cold Ohio night is actually intoxicating. I will reach back to this night and understand that this is when I first knew I was different. I won’t take my first drink for another five years, but the way I creep into the kitchen and empty bottles without abandon, the crush of my wish for them to contain something other than virginal apple cider, so that my actions might mean something, so that I might feel different, so that my life might be real, and the absolute certainty I have that alcohol will give me these things tells me something about myself. I know that when I do pick up a bottle, I will never want to put it down.
I am stretched out on the floor of a non-descript new construction home in the Arizona suburbs. I don’t know whose house it is, or if anybody I am with lives here. I am face down, then face up, stomach churning, skin burning, head tied to the top of my neck by a thin string. I press my body flush against the tile, cool this time of year, having let go of the summer heat. “I think I have the flu,” I say, to no one in particular. A voice responds, calm but impatient: “No you don’t.” I’ve been taking pills for a few months now, but this is the first time I’ve washed them down with warm beer. I miss the clean high, but notice a new depth to my oblivion. Is this my first drink? I don’t black out often, but when I reach back, this whole year will be a blank.
I am tripping through a corn maze, the seventh wheel on a date with my roommates and their boyfriends, careening around blind corners into parents and children and preteens holding hands, breaking down stalks to force my way off this course and into the haunted route that cost ten dollars more and features chainsaws and grisley backlit murder scenes. Am I drunk on vodka or does that come later in the night, at the house on Elm Street, the locus of a nine month waking nightmare? Am I high or did that come earlier, before one of the boyfriends drove us out to the farm in the middle of the desert in his wood-paneled PT Cruiser? Am I annoyed verging on angry at my friends because I am coming down or because they are sharing their affections with all these men who are not me? Am I depressed because I am lonely or because my brain stopped producing serotonin? In a few weeks time, I will cut my own hair and dye it black and my standards will drop so low that I will hook up with a crackhead dressed like Jesus and spend a week pissed when he doesn’t call me back.
I am in law school and just finished with the first major assignment of the semester, a memo for my legal writing class. I take the State Street bus to the quad to turn in my paper and make conversation with an older man, who proceeds to follow and grope me when I climb off at my stop. I’ve been almost all the way dry for a few months, except for the odd bottle of wine or three with my roommate and I do not plan to drink, but am rattled enough that by the time I meet my friends at the bar and get through the line, I am ordering pitchers of Two Hearted. I don’t remember how I get home. Years later, I will read an essay about how women drink because of the patriarchy and think back to this incident and know without a doubt that it is true.
I am newly married and newly graduated and Chicago is leaking color as the months speed past moving into our first home, buying our first furniture that is not composed primarily of particle board, finding our first dog, starting our first grown up jobs. I finally have everything I want and I want to get high so badly I could scream. I have to stop listening to certain songs (by Gillian Welch, by Elliott Smith) on the train because when I put them on I feel like I am sinking. This is when I start to get really scared. Does a few years of bad decisions mean that I will live with this hunger forever?
I am throwing darts with my husband, I am doing a jigsaw puzzle, I am driving my friends to the bar, I am on the train home from work, I am walking my daughter and her cousin to the park, I am revising an expert report, I am on the phone with my boss, I have strep throat and am sick as a dog, I am at a baby shower, I am counting the days until I can take a pregnancy test: I am drunk and no one knows. I am glued to the window above my kitchen sink staring into the mass of vegetation behind my house. The last green thing died a few weeks ago and I could’ve sworn I saw a coyote slinking behind a row of bare trees, but my husband doesn’t believe me. I don’t know if I believe me.
This October, I am ten months sober. I am working an active program to recover and repair the havoc that addiction wreaked on my psyche. I am nourishing a budding spiritual life, after years of starving and then bludgeoning the one that Mormonism gave me.
I spent this Sunday sprawled on the sun-warmed wood floor of my friends’ apartment like a cat, playing with my daughter, making goo goo eyes at their baby, and laughing at my husband’s jokes. We drink coffee and pour over the details of their upcoming move to another state, which has me depressed, but the buzz of their anticipation is contagious and I know this is a good move for them. I also know there is a prescription bottle of benzos in the bathroom medicine cabinet but I am keeping my hands off of it. Miraculously, I don’t know what’s in the kitchen cabinets or anywhere else and don’t think to look. I am at peace.
Autumn is still at it with her trickster hijinks, though. A few hours into our visit, we hear a light knock on the front door. I know before I know, because my friends live in a walk up and we don’t hear the buzzer, that it is the downstairs neighbors, the childless hipster couple that hosted a co-ed baby shower for our friends last November. The door swings open and I slip back to the place I was the first time I met them, at the baby shower, when my brain was circling the drain, when my anxiety had me curling in on myself and burning up with shame. In a moment, I am pacing this couple’s first floor apartment, which is artfully layered with plants and paintings and cat memorabilia that is somehow not tacky, and is laid out shotgun style so that I can dart into the dining room and finish the dregs of a few bottles of champagne while the guests are making onesies in the living room and then, when somebody wanders in for food, disappear into the kitchen to dissolve in self-loathing.
Last year, after the shower, I drove my family home and spent the rest of the day agitated, anxious, and insane.
This weekend, the specter of those same feelings rose up in my chest when this couple stepped into my perfect day and I found myself wanting to disappear into the bathroom, into the kitchen, into another disappointing high.
When I talk about addiction, I often refer to it as a black hole. Sometimes it is sticky, other times it is gaping, always it is in the context of how I scraped my way out.
But the truth is, when I think about my addiction, there are times when it the memory of it feels more like a safe corner. A heavy blanket. A womb. And while the gravity of the thing is relative, the pull is never stronger than in autumn. The world goes gray, the veil between past and present thins, and I forget where I am or why anybody would ever want to leave the place that is warm and close and easy.
The difference between this fall and all the others is that this time I tied a thick rope around my waist and told somebody to make sure to pull me back.
Now that I am consistently attending the same recovery meetings with the same core group of people, it is becoming increasingly clear that, as much as I love the changes that have occurred in my life since I committed to a specific program for recovery, I remain somewhat ambivalent about the logistics of that program. I haven’t formally “worked” the steps (although I feel comfortable saying I’ve done some version of the first three). I don’t have a sponsor. I don’t do service work. I’ve never picked up the phone. I haven’t shared my story with another member (except in bits and pieces at meetings). I just started reading the Big Book.
I don’t have any philosophical reservations about these aspects of the program. I don’t question that I could seriously benefit from them, and maybe even need them if I want this run at sobriety to stick. Even if I don’t need them, I want them. I do.
But I am scared to do them. I am scared that if I immerse myself in the program, delve into the literaure, open up to the people in it, I will discover that I don’t belong. I fear that my nagging insecurity that I am not good enough, or, in this case, that I am not bad enough, will be confirmed.
Every time I read or hear something that challenges my belief that I am truly like other people in the program–in the Big Book, on the internet, at a meeting–old anxiety rises up, squeezing my chest, constricting my throat.
It is the same feeling I got when Nick G. said that members of the LDS church who support gay marriage aren’t really Mormon.
It is the same feeling I got when I read a comment on a feminist website saying that Mormons aren’t Christians.
It is the same feeling I get every time somebody questions the reality of my experiences or the accuracy of my perceptions (especially the ones that are already fuzzy):
When Sarah and Ben referred to my being raped as a “fling”;
When Stephen said that men and women are equal recipients of the “can’t have it all” rhetoric;
When John said it was sexist for me to be nervous about being alone in a dark alley with a man but not a woman;
When my therapist said “but it doesn’t seem like you drank that much.”
I don’t care for this feeling, but I am strong today, so I finger the bruise, push a little harder. I learn that this particular wound is shot through with shades of hurt and rejection that are not unlike:
The feeling I got when the Millers passed me and my daughter in the grass on the way to Heidi and Bob’s house for dinner, having never been invited over ourselves;
The feeling I got when Jake asked if my daughter was going to a birthday party that we’d heard nothing about;
The feeling I got when I realized I was dropped from the group text that’s always going back and forth between the moms in my neighborhood;
The feeling I got when a man at the LDS church let a door swing shut in my face as I was carrying my daughter through and then denied it happened when his wife pointed out how rude he was;
The feeling I got when a woman at the Unitarian church told me I should have taken my wiggly girl outside during the service because we were a distraction.
What am I afraid will happen if I tell my story at a meeting or to a sponsor and someone thinks I don’t qualify for a seat in the rooms?
At first I thought I was afraid that I would drink again. That is sort of true. I really don’t want to drink again, but that’s just how I feel today.
What’s more true is that, with or without the program, I can’t go back to how I was. It is not an option. What I am really afraid of is having to do this thing–learning to live a sober life–alone.
One of my first big steps toward recovery was making an appointment with a counselor. Initially, I tried to find somebody whose experience spoke directly to my very special and unique circumstances. My first run at sobriety through a twelve-step program left me convinced that I was different (better) than the folks who needed God and daily meetings and inane “literature” to keep clean. In reaction to this, and in a simultaneous act of desperation and ego, I sent my first inquiry out to a woman who advertised herself as specializing in working with “high functioning” individuals seeking to address career-related anxiety. I considered it a bonus that she specialized in career transitions as I was convinced that the bulk of my problems emanated from my insanely high pressure job. I pretended that I liked the fact that she was herself in the process of transitioning from counselor to bona fide life coach, even though that struck me as if not a red flag, then at least a pink one.
I also searched for counselors That specialized in substance abuse, but not, like, serious substance abuse. I was only drinking except for that one time in February when I took what was left of the hydrocodone from my c-section because I was annoyed at my husband and spent the next day ransacking medicine cabinets until I broke down and realized I needed to get myself a dealer, a prescription, or into an NA meeting (they are right when they say you don’t realize you are an addict until the drugs run out). I pretended not to notice that many of the addiction counselors that I found online specialized in something called “harm reduction,” which is the clinical term for “drinking less, but still drinking (thank God).” I pretended not to notice the crawling in my arms, the way my insides lurched in anticipation when I read those words, which I took as permission. Nothing red about those flags flapping furiously in the wake of my denial.
In the end, the high end life coach didn’t have any openings and the addiction specialists worked across town and I ended up going with the first local counselor who saw clients late into the evening, because as a full-time working parent of a young child, that was the only time I had. I made the call from the back porch, whispering into the phone because I didn’t want my neighbors to overhear. I told her I was anxious all the time and afraid of falling back into old, dangerous habits. She told me she could help. I booked five days out and cried with relief into the cool autumn air.
By the time I made it to the appointment I was high out of my mind and couldn’t look the counselor in the eye. At her suggestion, we walked up and down Lake Michigan and I told her, in halting, unemotional tones, what was going on. I told her about my long hours and my toxic co-workers and my dead dog and my oppressive religion and my transgressive marriage to a non-Mormon and my clingy toddler. I told her about my expectation that I would be perfect in all aspects my life, explaining that it was not as unreasonable as it sounded because I’d pulled it off pretty well for 30 years. I told her how the anxiety started in my head and worked its way into my chest until I was on the verge of panic. I told her how the depression started in my chest and worked its way into my head until I was on the verge of tears. I told her I didn’t know what to do.
When I finished unloading, the counselor said a few things that stuck. She said that she was not surprised that I got high. She said that I was burning the candle at both ends for my family and my job but that I wasn’t doing anything for me. She told me I needed some new coping mechanisms. Together, we came up with an action plan that looked something like this:
- Go to bed early.
- Stop looking at my phone before bed.
- Join a mom’s basketball league.
- Start a blog.
That’s right. I paid a counselor $150 an hour to fix my brain and came out with a list of New Year’s resolutions.
As with any list of resolutions, this one needed a bit of tweaking. I never could muster the nerve to play basketball with a group of stranger moms, particularly since I had it on good authority that at least one of the moms was a former collegiate player, so I decided to train for a race instead. I never made it past the first meditation session using the Headspace app, so I ditched developing a regular meditation practice in favor occasionally reminding myself to breathe.
For the next few months, I treated this list like a prescription, and the items on it like medicine, because that’s what they were. I dutifully turned off the TV after a single episode of Walking Dead and went upstairs at 10 PM. I stopped asking myself if I had time to go to the gym and just went. I submitted a proposal for a blog on women’s issues to a local collective and forced out content for content’s sake. If you’d asked me before I went to therapy whether I had time for myself, I would have laughed. Sure, if you count trying to see how much work I can cram into my 25 minute train rides to and from work and playing LEGO with my two-year-old as time for myself. I wanted to read fiction and write essays and play music and run along the lake, but somewhere along the line I convinced myself that I didn’t deserve to do the things that made me come alive unless they were in the service of my employer or my family. I’d bought into the idea that women can’t have it all, that by having a good job and a happy family I was already taking too much, and that if I dared to ask for more I’d lose it all. By re-framing my dumb hobbies as mechanisms for coping with anxiety that was driving me to self-destruct, my counselor took want and deserve out of the equation. As she pointed out, I wouldn’t be able to do my big job or take care of my family if I went to rehab. I made time to read and write and run because I had to.
The other thing my counselor recommended is that I go to recovery meetings. She started with gentle suggestions, emailing me dates and times of meetings vouched for by her colleagues, meetings with professionals, other lawyers, women. After yet another lapse, one that left me so sick I was begging my husband to take me to the hospital and finally willing to do anything to stop ingesting poison, my counselor gave me the gift of telling me that it was time to get serious about finding a recovery community. I’d tried to stay sober myself and failed. I needed help.
I balked. I questioned whether I could call myself an alcoholic. I questioned whether I had time. When the memory of the last hangover receded into the distance, I questioned whether I still needed to go to what I perceived as the extreme lengths of taking time out of my busy schedule to sit in musty rooms listening drunks read from an outdated book, listening to drunks talk about their problems, holding hands with drunks, listening to drunks recite the Lord’s prayer. That’s how I described the experience of participating in AA when I was convincing myself I wasn’t sick enough to continue with the program. During these negotiations with myself, I discounted the way I felt every time I walked out of a meeting, which was always, inevitably, without fail, better than I felt going in. Meetings made me feel lighter, seen, renewed. The truth was that I liked stepping outside of my routine, which had become staid and soul-sucking. I liked listening to people work through their shit. I liked thinking about how to live a better life. I especially liked the drunks, who showed me that I was not insane, or at least that I was not alone in my particular brand of insanity. And oh how I envied people who dropped casual references to home group and who laughingly confessed to being kicked in the ass by a sponsor, which told me that I did want a recovery community, and badly.
As usual, as a woman, a Mormon, a mom, a martyr to the end, wanting it wasn’t enough. Want didn’t justify tucking my kid into bed early to make a 7:30 meeting for young people on Thursday night or losing an hour better spent billing to check in with a Monday nooners group. And, it turned out that need wasn’t enough either, at least not after a decade spent hiding from the truth, lying to myself about what it is that I really need.
A close call and a sobriety angel cleared things up. I posted a cry for help in an online group for women working toward sobriety. I owned up to needing an IRL community, and whined that I had no time to attend meetings. A serious wise woman weighed in.
First, she handed down some knowledge. She said, “For years, I used drinking to hold together an unsustainable life. Like duct tape. When I took alcohol out of the equation, something had to give.”
Next, she put me in my place. She said, “I have two kids and a high pressure job and I go to six meetings a week. Anybody that is not okay with me taking the hour a day I need to not drink myself to death can fuck off.”
In the end, she made me cry. She said, ” You deserve a life that isn’t killing you.”
She was right, of course. This is both obvious and revolutionary. Within days, I found a meeting that I loved, that I attend and look forward to as often as I can up to three times a week.
I deserve to take 30 minutes to run a few miles because I want to move my body, not because I need it to quell the anxiety that makes me slam doors and scream at my family.
I deserve a job that does not require me to sacrifice my sanity, my safety, and my health at the alter of the billable hour and client service.
I deserve an elevated life in which I deal in wants not needs, in which I do the things I like because I like them, not because I need them to cope.
I deserve to feel like I want to live instead of like I need to die.
Anybody that is not okay with me doing what it takes to shape that life (including, mostly, myself) can take a seat.