Six months ago today, I took my last drink. I drove myself to the hospital at 3 am, was so sick that I crumpled to the floor during the intake, and I declared myself done trying to fix my own brokenness.
That day hadn’t been any more dramatic than any in the preceding few months. Except that every day of the preceding few months had been more dramatic than any of the other days in my life. Or maybe they weren’t necessarily *dramatic*, so much as terrifyingly quiet. Not normal. Locked-down.
And while it’s easy to point the finger of blame on the pandemic, the greater truth is that I’d been asking myself for months, a few years even, if my consumption hadn’t somewhere crossed the line from sociable to serious.
“Sociable” isn’t really the right word though, because it was more like a cocktail after closing the clinic for the week, or a glass of wine with a nice meal I’d prepared, or a nightcap after the kids were in bed. By myself, the only adult in my house. So not so social, really.
And of course, a cocktail at week’s end doesn’t an alcoholic make, nor does a vino with an occasional meal. And while a nightly nightcap is closing in on regularity, it’s really not all that much. I know this, because I read the memoirs of many (many!) alcoholics, trying to discern where that magic line lay. And when I learned that they drank more (so much more!) it gave me a kind of permission to relax my boundaries. Because obviously, I didn’t have a drinking problem.
There were so many lines in those books that caught my attention:
* “Bad things didn’t always happen when I was drinking. But when bad things happened, I was always drinking.”
* “Non-alcoholics don’t stare at the ceiling in the middle of the night, wondering if they might have a *teensy* bit of a drinking problem.”
* “I didn’t have a drinking problem…until I did.”
But there were so many justifications for imbibing, too. Jesus turned water into wine. Red wine reduces cholesterol. Wine is Mommy’s “little helper.” With book clubs turning into wine clubs, and salons offering a drink before being seated in a chair, and yoga studios delivering Vino Vinyasa’s every week…it was always wine-o-clock somewhere.
Did an author write about how she used to slip mini bottles of Bailey’s into her purse before a stressful event, just so she’d have a security blanket if needed? Well, I didn’t do that, so obviously I wasn’t an alcoholic! (But it wasn’t a bad idea, and since I’d determined that I wasn’t an alcoholic, I might tuck one in mine too…just before stressful events.)
Dry July. Sober October. New Year’s Resolutions. And those ever-so-occasional terrible-horrible-no-good-very-bad-hangovers after which I declared that I was NEVER DRINKING AGAIN. Well, those times all proved that I could stop whenever I wanted. (Although DAMN if I didn’t just want a little sip when I was dry, because a little sip does not an alcoholic make!) And after each dry spell, having proven again that I could quit: I reassured myself that I definitively did NOT have to worry about my drinking. (So of course, it would be fine to resume consuming after the challenge had been met.)
And then the pandemic hit. No need to drive anywhere. No work responsibilities. Nothing to maintain appearances for. Just days blurring into nights, doom-scrolling until dawn, my imagination on overdrive with fears for the future, and a growing self-loathing for how I was handling myself. Y’know: depression and anxiety on steroids.
I started quietly asking for help. I tried meds, amped-up my therapy, reached-out to close friends for support. But there are no quick fixes in a fast downward spiral. And so I self-medicated with familiar bottles, trying to band-aid my way to a better tomorrow. I wanted to close my eyes until things were better, a modern-day Disney story: “Sleeping Beauty Avoids COVID.”
I steered away from 12-step meetings, recovery programs, and anything accessible because I was scared of being “outted” in our small-town community. Afraid of being seen. Ashamed of not having my shit together. And even if I walked in and knew no one, however would I fare sober in a roomful of strangers?!
The details of those final weeks are best left for another story. Suffice it to say that there came a moment when the hospital became my only hope. Which is how I found myself on its floor at 3 am, my boys sleeping unknowing yet in their own beds. I was admitted to the Behavioral Health Unit immediately.
The staff tinkered with my meds and found a better cocktail to help me fall asleep without booze…for the first time in MONTHS…nay, years. To stop my heart from trying to pound its way out of my chest. To slow the ever-racing thoughts consuming my brain-space.
The social worker understood that I was freaked-out about being “outted,” and he helped me find support groups from around the country that I could zoom into with anonymity from the safety of my bedroom.
We patients wandered the halls asking one another: “How are you today?” “Another cuppa double-depresso for me.” “Yup, me too.” And somehow, that acknowledgment brought comfort.
And so it was, on the very last day of my in-patient stay, that someone finally broke my anonymity, the fragile thing that I’d been trying to protect to help me maintain some sense of control. The nurse assigned to me had once been one of my acupuncture patients. I knew that she knew this too, because when she first laid eyes on me, she greeted me by name and with a wink. I bolted. I raced the halls looking for my social worker, to beg for a reassignment. When I couldn’t find him, I fled to the pharmacy, desperate for a Valium. When the line was too long, I hid in my room, determined to not show my face until discharge.
But of course, life confronts us with our deepest fears at the time when we finally have the resources to face them. One by one, my support team made their rounds to my room. And one by one, they listened to my holy terror. Until finally, the nurse who’d frightened me with her familiarity arrived, and I broke down sobbing on her shoulder.
And that marked the beginning of my recovery. That baby step helped me begin connecting with strangers and with folks who’d only ever known me as their acupuncturist. Every time I nodded in solidarity with someone else’s story, I felt a little less alone. Every time I shared a bit about my own vulnerabilities, a part of me relaxed. I let go of my need to control my narrative.
It’s been six months since my last drink. I no longer wake at 3 am with an adrenaline spike. I no longer joke about needing a breathalyzer installed on my smart phone, to prevent me from making impulse-purchases at midnight. I don’t worry about whether the kids noticed that my speech slurred a bit the evening before. I don’t calculate how many drinks I’ve had in how many hours, and whether that means it’s safe for me to run a quick errand around town. I don’t care what the recycling people think of the contents of my bin.
Most importantly, I can look in the mirror and feel at ease with the person looking back at me.
Thank you to those who noticed me slipping away from myself in the spring and reached-out. Deep bows of gratitude to those who’ve shared their own stories and listened to mine. I’m especially thankful for all those mentors – known and unknown – who’ve helped “My People” on their journey, so that they could in turn help me on mine. We are connected in ways unimaginable.
And you. Whether you’re sober-curious or on your last bender…if you’re thinking about Day 1 or eyeing-up your 100th Day 1…if you feel scared of being labeled, or determined to maintain appearances, or you wonder how-the-hell you’ll ever sleep without your good friend Jack, just know that you’re not alone. #211 Is a helpful hotline for anyone, anytime. I’ll drop a bunch of other resources below, and you can always drop a note to me, too. I might not have the answers you seek, but sometimes it helps to simply sit in the darkness together.
* The tattoo was created by Brad at Blue Crab on my 100th day without a drop. Its significance to me is multi-layered. As sober days turned into sober weeks, and my mood slowly evened-out, I noticed myself quietly repeating: “Alcohol Makes Me Anxious. Alcohol Makes Me Anxious. Alcohol Makes Me Anxious.” I realized it served as both a mantra and an acronym: AMMA. Amma is another word for “Mother,” the compassionate life force which nourishes and nurtures, holds us tenderly in times of heartache, loves us unconditionally when we walk through our shadowlands. A lotus symbolizes resilience, beauty budding in the muddiest of waters. The Sanskrit “OM” represents the breath of God. And “Om Ma” is itself a meditation: on the inhale one hears the sound “Om,” and on the exhale one hears the sound “Ma.” This repetition calms the mind and soothes the spirit.
*** RESOURCES ***
AA works great for millions of people…but if you’ve tried it and found it not to be a fit for you, or if you want to include it as ONE of your tools (but not rely solely upon it) you’re not alone. Figure out what works for you and leave the rest. https://www.nytimes.com/…/alcoholics-anonymous-women.html
“The Alcohol Experiment” and “This Naked Mind” by Annie Grace
“Quit Like a Woman” by Holly Whitaker
“We Are the Luckiest” by Laura McKowen
“The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober” by Catherine Gray
“In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts” by Gabor Mate
“Integral Recovery” by John Dupuy
“Refuge Recovery” by Noah Levine
“Buddhism and the Twelve Steps” by Kevin Griffin
“Eight Step Recovery” by Valerie Mason-John
“Recover 2.0” by Tommy Rosen
“Recovery” by Russell Brand
“Perfect Daughters” by Robert Ackerman
“Sober for Good” by Anne Fletcher
“The Easy Way for Women to Stop Drinking” by Allen Carr
“Clean” by David Sheff
“Drink” by Anne Dowsett Johnston
Laura McKowen and Holly Whitaker’s HOME podcasts: https://podcasts.apple.com/…/home-podcast/id1021126077
Russell Brand’s “Freedom from Addiction” podcasts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S45FO67_Omk