Day 15: Battening Down the Hatches.

I’m fifteen days sober today and getting ready for a massive hurricane slash nor’easter slash “frankenstorm” event. Normally I’d be headed to the store to stock up on whiskey and wine (because they’re non-perishable, of course), but this time around I’ll be settling for non-alcoholic ginger beer and sparkling water (and candles). If this storm is as bad as they are predicting I might have sporadic power the next few days, so I might not be posting.

Godspeed to all along the US Eastern Seaboard!

Day 13: Live the Questions.

Paula Modersohn-Becker. Rainer Maria Rilke, 1906

This blog is a big part of my continued recovery, but unfortunately I won’t be able to spend much time online the next few days. So, this evening I’ll simply share a great quote from a great poet whose advice is just as valid for a recovering addict as it as for any young poet.

Be patient toward all
that is unsolved in your heart
and try to learn to love
the questions themselves.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Art: Rainer Maria Rilke, by Paula Modersohn-Becker

Day 12: My First Bar Experience.

There’s a saving grace in having been sick the last few days. Tonight, after a long and stressful day of work–a day in which one of my colleagues had an even more stressful day–I went out to a bar. It was my first time since I stopped drinking that I went to a bar and I’m happy to say on this twelfth day of sobriety (twelfth: what a cool word) I once again didn’t drink.

In the world I currently inhabit, an offer of a beer after work is a show of compassion and understanding. It’s an offer of “I understand you’ve had a rough day, let me show you I care, let me help make it better in some way.” So when my co-worker Stacy came to me kvetching about clients and coworkers, I offered to take her out for a drink after work–my treat.

Once we got to the bar I just ordered a diet coke, however. A diet coke was my plan all along, and I rehearsed that choice over and over in my mind on the way to the bar. When I ordered my soda and she looked questioningly at me, I simply said “I’ve been sick all week. And anyways, I haven’t been drinking as much lately.” Of course, switch “haven’t been drinking as much lately” with “haven’t been drinking at all because I’ve realized I have a problem” and you’d arrive at the truth, but at this point in my sobriety I didn’t feel it was necessary to bring her into that conversation. In any case, the beer wasn’t the important issue tonight (at least for me), it was the importance of letting her know I care in a way that was familiar to our relationship up to this point.

I won’t lie: it was strange being in a bar without a beer in hand. There was an initial moment when Stacy was making her drink choice that I thought “Just get a beer, no one will care.” But luckily the moment passed. I enjoyed being with Stacy tonight, and enjoyed that she had a nice time decompressing with me after a stressful day. But more than that I was happy to be present with her, to actually hear what she was saying instead of thinking about what my next drink would be. When she went for a second beer, I simply ordered a glass of water–“I don’t want to be up all night. The caffeine, you know,” I said. She seemed to not care, and for that I felt vindicated in my choice. The rest of the evening went off without a hitch and I drove her home–sober.

Tonight was my first real experience of being in a drinking environment and not drinking. It feels great to have this milestone behind me. It was a huge step in helping to assure me that I can do this (the temptation was there, I noticed it, and then it passed without incident). But perhaps more important was the knowledge that came from the experience of learning that as long as I’m present and vigilant I can do “normal” things with my friends like join them for a beer. Of course I won’t always be able to use the excuse “I’ve been sick,” but just knowing that I can be in a bar and not drink gives me a lot of hope for the rest of this journey.

Art: The Floor Planers, Gustave Caillebotte

Day 11: My Fantasy Relapse.

My delightfully gross cold from yesterday has morphed into a delightfully awful cold today. Given my general delirium I’m not even going to attempt to reflect on my own sobriety tonight (though it is Day 11!). Instead I’ll leave you with another article by the amazing Sacha Z. Scoblic of the New York Times. My favorite line? “Experience tells me that sobriety isn’t something I can slip in and out of without consequence.”

My Fantasy Relapse
By Sacha Z. Scoblic
New York Times, Proof: Alcohol and American Life
April 3, 2009

Lots of addicts in recovery worry that they might relapse if they hang out with old friends, if they lose their job, or if a loved one dies. I worry I might relapse if an exciting opportunity to get wasted with a celebrity comes along.

Recently, a friend told me an amazing story. During the summer of 2004, she had been in Aspen, Colo., when her pal’s cell phone rang. The pal answered the phone, explained the situation to my friend, and said, “Are you in?” The next thing she knew, she was at a house known to many as Owl Farm. There, she and a small group of people clustered around a bald man with tinted glasses and a penchant for pills. It was Hunter S. Thompson. And, while my friend and a few others smoked pot and drank wine, Thompson actually read to them — excerpts of his own work from original 1970s issues of  Rolling Stone magazine. Several months after my friend had met him, the great writer died. “Huh,” I said. After composing myself — I wavered in a kind of stunned jealousy for a few moments — I became consumed with just one thought: obviously, in that situation, I would have to relapse.

I was and am a Thompson fan. Perhaps because his addictions and his prose were so entwined and so visceral. Perhaps because he was writing during a time I always wished I had come of age in. And so, for several long days, I obsessed over what avenues I might have taken in life to put me in a position to meet Hunter S. Thompson and have him read to me from an original Rolling Stone magazine while at Owl Farm. I even realized that — ha! — the night in question was almost a year before I quit drugs and alcohol. As if the fantasy could now be guilt-free. As if now, should time travel suddenly exist and should I be able to become my friend for a night, I’d be good to go.

And I can imagine it so well! While Thompson tells me about the Vegas articles, he hands me some patented cocktail of substances; maybe I demur at first, but then he says, “Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only cure is to load up on heinous chemicals—and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas with the music at top volume and at least a pint of ether.”

More and more, it began to seem prudent to plan for such an evening, not of time travel and body-swapping, but of not-to-be-missed relapse opportunities. I thought I should make a top-five list, a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card should the chance arise to, say, party and jam with George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars. I would flash my relapse pass to the heavens and say, “It’s cool. I’m allowed to drink in this situation.” But then I realized I hadn’t listened to Parliament-Funkadelic since college and I don’t actually play an instrument, so jamming would just be embarrassing. Really, Clinton and crew just seem like a fun bunch, but they’re not actually relapse-worthy. In fact, the more I tried to create a relapse pass, the more I realized how few potential scenarios excited me.

The truth is that there is no one alive I want to lose my sobriety over. Who is there? Amy Winehouse? We could spend the night shooting up while she nursed a pet mouse and I slouched on her tanning bed and waited for dawn. It just seems like a waste of a trip to London. Lindsay Lohan? We could drink vodka and Red Bull, dance until we sweated out our glitter body lotion, and then drive her Bentley into her beach house. I’m exhausted just thinking about that. While there are plenty of living artists I would love to meet, I cannot think of any with whom I would need to have an exotic chemical experience. Now, if Jack Kerouac passed me “tea” and whiskey at a jazz club, Truman Capote offered me a cocktail, or Dorothy Parker ordered a bottle and then asked what I was having — well, those are different stories altogether. Clearly, I’ve romanticized drinking with dead writers.

Alas, with my living celebrity relapse dance card still empty, I thought I might plan for a more realistic scenario. Like nuclear holocaust or asteroids. So I briefly flirted with including the end of the world on my relapse pass. But then I remembered that I was not 16 years old, and I would much rather spend time with my husband, dog, and family in my final hours than with a bottle of vodka and a gallon of Ocean Spray cranberry juice. If anything, I’d like to be so sober at the end of the world that I can clearly communicate to my loved ones how much they mean to me and be open to receiving that kind of message, too. I’m all about soaking up the love. (Even now, though, I can hear a former version of myself gagging a little and saying, “Oh, puhlease!” Of course, that’s the same version of myself who thought that it was just hysterical when I almost burned down my apartment building. Whoops!)

But these days, I am mostly out of the habit of thinking about the next raging party. When I watch a movie with lots of drugs and alcohol, I squirm. When I see friends drunk, I want to flee, not join in. These days my fantasies are more likely to be about the single glass of wine with dinner, the cold beer on a hot day, the champagne flute raised in a toast. And, apparently, anything Hunter S. Thompson hands me. But there are no get-out-of-jail-free cards for this disease. There are no relapse passes, because once I take that drink, I don’t know what’s going to happen. Thompson’s party, after all, ended with a gun in his mouth. And my experience tells me that as soon as my brain gets a taste of that witch’s brew, wires will crisscross, sanity will bend, and reason will wither. Experience tells me that sobriety isn’t something I can slip in and out of without consequence.

So I have to ask myself, what am I willing to lose for this relapse? Am I willing to lose my husband? My job? The small world of good friends and neighbors I have created around me? My self-respect when I look in the mirror and realize I have to climb once more from the depths of addiction? Relapsing might come easy, but how many recoveries do I have in me? That’s why I’m giving up on the top five relapse pass — even the time-traveling, body-swapping Hunter S. Thompson relapse fantasy. Because, when the weasels close in, I am way better equipped to handle them sober.


Art: Pandamonium, by Banksy

Day 10: “There’s An Old Voice in My Head That’s Holding Me Back.”

I’ve come down with a delightfully gross cold, so I’m calling it an early (and sober) night. So, instead of any real reflection I’ll leave you with this song tonight, Little Talks by Of Monsters & Men. I love this song for two reasons: the sound, of course, and one lyric in particular: “There’s an old voice in my head that’s holding me back.” This is a lyric that rings especially true to my newly sober ears. It’s a voice that I’m learning to engage in new and healthy ways. I also love the video itself–what a wicked great journey narrative, filled with fantastic beasts and demons; a Technicolor odyssey not unlike my own.


Day 9: Letting My Guard Down.

I had a good day today. So good, in fact, that for a moment I almost let my guard down to grab a drink. It was a reflex, like some subconscious machine inside of me extended my hand toward the fridge to grab a drink. “You’re happy, let’s make this feeling last.” It was so natural, so nonchalant, that I honestly failed to remember for a split second that I wasn’t drinking anymore. The moment left me momentarily puzzled, but otherwise unshaken. I continued my evening as happily as before, even without that drink.

It’s strange how easily I forgot how seductive a good day can be when it comes to drinking. This made me think: What are other emotions or other scenarios that pull me towards booze? Is there perhaps some way I can prepare for these moments? The thing I realized is that, for me at least, drinking is an equal opportunity fellow: Have a rough day? Have a drink. Run into an old friend? Let’s grab a cocktail. At a wedding? Toast the happy couple. At a funeral? A round in honor of his memory. Just want to veg with some reality TV? A few beers makes that so much easier. Cooking Italian? How ’bout a bottle of good red to go along with that. Drinking has been such a big part of what I’ve done (and who I’ve been) for so long that I can imagine pretty much any scenario in which a drink in hand would be the norm. If I really wanted to plot out all my triggers, it would almost be easier to think of all the scenarios or all the emotions in which I wouldn’t drink!

But, one day at a time, right…

As I continue on this journey I expect I’m going to have all sorts of surprising days like today where my natural reflex will be to drink. And, like today, some of the reflexes might be so subconscious and so subversive that I’ll be surprised at how easily I’ll forget that I’m not drinking anymore. Besides being vigilant as well as more cognizant of my actions in general, perhaps the key is doing what I did today: notice the impulse, recognize the temptation, remind myself that I’m not drinking, recall why I’m not drinking, and then let it pass. Oh, and then celebrate one more day of sobriety.

One day at a time…

Art: Midday Rest, by Vincent van Gogh


Day 8: Gratitude.

I had the most incredible morning today that I’ve decided to post earlier than I usually do. No worries, though, Day 8 will still end with me sober!

I went to church this morning with my friend Caroline. Though it’s the first time I’ve been to church in several months, the real story is what happened afterward. Now, Caroline and I are work friends. She’s in a different department than I am, so I don’t get to see her all that often. We used to get together pretty often, and no matter what we did it always started or ended with drinks (and sometimes both).

After church today Caroline and I went to brunch. I’ve always LOVED brunch–a great way to start a Sunday, a built-in excuse to have a couple mimosas and no one bats an eye. Today I obviously didn’t partake, and to my surprise neither did Caroline. The brunch went along swimmingly, lots of laughs, lots of avoiding talking about work. And then she asked how I’m doing.

D: “I’m doing really well, actually.”
C: “Oh, really well?”
D: “Well, yeah, I guess so to be honest. I’ve been feeling great lately. I’m thinking about maybe doing a retreat towards the end of November. You know, get off the grid, enjoy some solitude. Do you have any suggestions for a place I can go?”
C: “A retreat, eh? What’s going on?”

At this point I was tempted to act nonchalant and just say something about needing a break from work or something equally innocuous. Instead…

D: “Well, I recently stopped drinking.”

I gushed, much to my surprise. I told her about the reasons I stopped drinking. I told her about the last work gathering that I went to where I drank so much wine that I struggled to get home, and that when I finally did get home I drank so much whiskey that I blacked out. My dad called me that night, and I was too drunk to answer the phone. I told her how embarrassing it was to wake up with vomit on my front porch, in my bathroom, and in my bedroom and not remember how it got there. I told her how awful I felt that I couldn’t be present when my dad called. I told her that I’ve been to a couple AA meetings, and I told her about the great community I’ve found in the blog world.

C: “You know, you could have died. Either driving home or choking in bed or something.”
D: “I know. The sad thing is that this was becoming normal for me. Maybe not the blacking out part, but the uncontrolled drinking part for sure. I just realized that my drinking was getting worse and that it was time to stop while I still had the chance.”

And then the greatest (and most unexpected) thing happened.

C: “Well, I haven’t told anyone this, but I stopped drinking too. I’ve been sober for several weeks now.”

She then went on to tell me her story, and how hard it’s been, and how great it’s been not to drink. She told me that she’s been hesitant to hang out with me recently because her own journey to sobriety has been tenuous, and she was concerned that getting together with me would trigger her to drink.

We had a real conversation about our individual struggles, each of our families’ issues around drinking, and how hard it can be to work in a place where seemingly every social event involves booze. As we walked out of brunch we made a vow to be there for each other–even through relapse, God forbid–and to change our friendship from merely “drinking buddies” to just plain ol’ buddies.

I don’t know why I told her about my sobriety, but I’m so glad I did. Today I feel such gratitude for having a flesh-and-bone compatriot on this journey. And I feel such gratitude to be able to have all of you folks to share it with as well. People make the journey not only doable, but worthwhile as well.

Art: Sunrise, Roy Lichtenstein