Knowing

Words and sentences were flooding through me a few minutes ago – would have been pouring out of me had I only had the means… or perhaps not. Now that I find myself comfortably situated, keyboard at hand, I am fumbling for that fleeting erudition. It is difficult not to attribute this at least in part to a sort of cowardice, given the intended stuff of this writing. I will carry on, regardless!

Thirty seven has recently seemed to me to be awfully young to have stopped drinking alcohol forever. I am actually 37 for the second time, rather splendidly, as I spent a whole year being 37 – knowing that it was so and writing in on forms and all the things – realising only as my birth month rolled around that the birthday most recently celebrated was in fact my 36th.

Still, I don’t think that is why I have been feeling too young for such drastic steps. Rather, I suspect, it is the insidious creep of time and with it the forgetting that breeds complacency.

I always meant to chronicle my “bottom” here as a means of holding myself accountable and inuring myself to this very phenomenon, but I never quite got around to it. It came to me not in one messy breakdown, although there was plenty of that, but instead by degrees. A series of little deaths and with each a whisper that was ever more insistent; a knowledge that was there as surely as I know the year of my birth and thus my age and which I persisted even so, in misremembering.*

In August I stopped breastfeeding my baby. I loved breastfeeding and knowing as I did that this would almost certainly be the last time I loved breastfeeding him intensely. It was not enough to put the brakes on my wine drinking, though and I knew that the short, greasy hours between my collapsing into bed and nursing him in the morning were too few to imagine that all or even “enough” of the alcohol had been metabolised. I knew then.

In September, barely functioning under the weight of another brutal hangover, I was trying to make a smoothie for my boys and inadvertently switched on the immersion blender while I was scooping it out with my finger. I had to rely on my then-7 year old to help me dress my finger, maneuver the baby into the carrier and shepherd the four of us to an urgent care so I could have it stitched. I knew then.

In October I writhed with embarrassment as I sat drinking a glass of wine on a busy bar patio midway through trick or treating with my boys. I hated the judgement I felt in strangers’ eyes and hated myself, but I couldn’t do without that drink. I knew then.

In November, watching the devastating election results come in I didn’t even try to stop myself. Having drunk the one bottle we had in (never buy more than you are ok with drinking) I went out and bought two more. I abandoned myself to the desire to obliterate everything, and set about it. Although they were exceptional circumstances I woke up sick and sad and very afraid that I had crossed a line or at least peered into the abyss. I announced that I had given up alcohol and lasted 12 days. There are always exceptional circumstances. I knew then.

In December, a few days before Christmas, I left the kids with my mom on Saturday afternoon to finish up the last of my shopping. When I got back my oldest asked me where I had been. I said something vague about errands. “I know what you did,” he replied in the matter of fact way of young children. “You went to [the wine shop] and you bought wine and then you drank it in the driveway and went and put the bottle in the recycling so no one would know.” I hadn’t had anything to drink that day, nor been to the wine store, and I never drank in secret or tried to hide the bottles and to this day I don’t know how or why he came up with such a detailed tale, but I knew then that he knew, and that was worst of all.

It took me five more months of trying and failing to not know, to “get things under control,” to drink less or to not drink every day or to not drink at home or to never drink alone, and reassuring myself that resisting the voice that told me some mornings that “a drink would surely take the edge off and it’s foolish to suffer like this all day just for the sake of waiting until 5,” was itself a victory and a sign that I was not that bad after all and there was still time; but I knew then, too.

Our 10th wedding anniversary is next week, and if you had told me on my wedding day (or to be honest on our 9th anniversary) that we would not be popping champagne to celebrate because I was also celebrating 10 (and a half!) months of sobriety, I would have been a little skeptical, if not a lot incredulous.

I am happy and proud to be sober today, but it would be disingenuous to say that I am not sad as well. It was such an easy, obvious way of celebrating, of letting loose and forgetting the ordinariness and the struggle of everyday life, and although more often than not I drank too much and was left with regrets after even the brightest celebration, I am very sad that we can’t share a bottle of champagne (or two) and listen to music from when we were dating and laugh and get a bit silly on our anniversary.

I think I have been feeling recently that I have ruined something good, putting a kibosh on something fun and lovely, but for better or worse (ha!) it had long since soured. I have only to look, a little fearlessly after all, at where I was and what I knew then, to see that my sobriety is a gift to be prized and protected. I am so grateful to be here, and to know for sure that I don’t have to go back to that dark and fearful place, ever again.

*Misremembered is claiming not to be a word but of course it must be, because it is just what I did and indeed have been doing again, recently.

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Dirty Words and Dark Secrets

In thinking about my word of the year I have also had cause to consider some of the ‘dirty’ words I have come up against since beginning (officially) this journey last May. The ‘A’ word, obviously: am I? Aren’t I? What does it really mean? Then there are the others that I have also had to confront, reluctantly and full of fear; “depression” “medication,” and one that has been persistently and increasingly insistently demanding my attention: cross-addiction. (Is this one word or two? Is this even exactly the right word? Let it stand.)

A guest post by Veronica Valli on A hangover free life on Tuesday finally gave me a frame for really confronting the issue and I am here today (a bit like church! Ha) to try again to tackle it.

One of the biggest mistakes I see people make in sobriety is believing that drinking is the problem when it is a symptom of the problem.

Our real problem is how we think and how we feel. We have to develop new and better ways to deal with our feelings and emotions. Because when we feel differently, we act differently, says Veronica.

How much easier it would be to be normal. A “normal” drinker, thinker, feeler, processor of life and living. I wish I was, sometimes, but of course there is no way of knowing which bits of myself would be left and which lost if I could be cured once and for all of the darkness, and the compulsive consumption that I resort to so readily – sometimes in a conscious bid to vanquish the darkness and sometimes just… because. Boredom, possibly, or something more destructive.

In any case, I am not “normal” even to the extent that there is such a thing at all. Alcoholic or no there came a time when I understood that I was powerless over alcohol, and that no relationship with it could ever be healthy. I had to quit, once and for all. Cross addiction is proving thornier. I can’t – well I don’t want to – quit sugar and caffeine once and for all. What a prospect! But the truth is these are not innocuous comforts or harmless distractions for me.

While I will not go so far as to liken, truly, either of these (or for that matter Bejeweled and its time-sucking brain-numbing ilk) to alcohol, there are some distressing similarities at least in my life as I am living it at the moment.

I wake up eager for my first cup of coffee and if my husband, who rises first, has not yet made any I feel disgruntled and cross until it is ready and poured. Sometimes I will drink a whole pot and be left shaky and agitated. I know before the last cup is poured that I have had enough. I know from bitter experience that if I drink coffee too late in the day I will have a terrible night’s sleep, making the next day worse, but I regularly do it anyway. I have a hard time leaving coffee in the pot, and I spend too much on it when I am out.

As to sugar… I have seen it discussed often enough on these pages and elsewhere by people in recovery to know that I am not alone. I always know how much there is in the house and as often as not once I start on a bar of chocolate (or box of cookies or tray of brownies, I cannot stop until it is finished. I hide it from the rest of the family so I won’t have to share. I have been known to contrive grocery orders (a household can always use a colossal stash of extra toilet paper, right?) in order to have a fix delivered late in the afternoon, after being “good” all day and committing in all sincerity to a dessert-free evening. Sometimes, if I really go to town, the late-night load of sugar actually causes me to wake up at 3am, a low-key version of the wine-fuelled wakings of old and accompanied by milder but unlovely feelings of shame and regret.

The less said about Bejeweled the better.

These are not comforts, nor are they harmless. They are hurting me. I am hurting myself. I am impeding, delaying, preventing my recovery. I understand that, at least for now, moderation is not a good strategy for me. I have decided that my last cup of coffee must indeed have been my last, for a while at least and that sugar  is off the table.

For today, it seems to me that the most important thing is really looking at the thing and I must admit that the act of writing all this down has been sobering. I hope that posting this here will give me some of the same sense of accountability that I got, especially in the early days, when I stopped drinking. Simply abstaining from one substance and replacing it with others is not going to be enough for me any more. I cannot truly be sober until I learn to live with and as myself. I am worthy of a full and healthful recovery, and that is surely a thing to be grateful for.

Maybe It’s Just Me

So. Since I started this process, (yea all those 16 days (+/-) ago,) I’ve been wrestling with the concepts of “alcoholic” and “alcoholism.” I thought I was going to make my peace with them, but it turns out I haven’t. Yesterday my therapist asked me to define what I thought an alcoholic is, and my first impulse was to respond, not me. Now, I don’t have a second’s hesitation in saying that I have an addiction or that I am alcohol dependent, so I don’t think it’s denial, per se. I have an idea, though, which is a little unformed and I thought to try and hammer it out here. 

The spark, I guess, came from Andrew Solomon’s powerful book on depression, “The Noonday Demon,’ which I have just started reading. He says, “There is no essential self that lies pure… under the chaos of experience and chemistry.” (Isn’t that great?) So I think what it has got me thinking about is how problematic the disease conception of alcoholism is. It’s not like chicken pox or something, where we’ve been infected by a virus and but for that we’d be clear-eyed and in control, and nor does it seem accurate or helpful to think of alcohol as the virus, and would that a cure could be found we’d be “healthy.” I feel like I am mangling this thought – the passage from idea to expression is as ever a challenge. I’m not proud of, or attached to my drinking identity, but I am pretty sure that I am not separate from it, either, and that freeing myself of the addiction is actually not going to “cure me” of myself – part of which is all the constellation of neuroses and quirks and proclivities – and passions and gifts that… facilitated my descent into alcoholic drinking. 

I’m not defending it (my drinking) and I am not coming from a place of defensiveness; I just think I (and probably many of us) turned to alcohol to be able to cope with a world and a life that was in many ways overwhelming not so much because of my particular circumstances but because of how I’m wired. I don’t want to drink or otherwise numb myself to that overwhelm any more, and I don’t want to be defenseless in the face of the pain and darkness that  I am, I suppose vulnerable to (keenly aware of?) but… I don’t want to be cured of who I am or how I see the world – actually the prospect of a cure in that sense sounds a lot like obliteration. But maybe that’s just my addiction talking. Perhaps this is insufferable navel gazing. I feel like there’s a lot of chatter about the stigma of alcoholism but I haven’t really read anything that gets to the nut of it, or at least of my discomfort with it. That’s all I have for now. I’d really value your insights if you’ve read this far and think there’s anything to this – I’m a little afraid that this makes no sense at all. (Is it too soon to joke that at least when I was drinking I was convicted in my ideas even when my logic was less than stellar?) Day 16…