This week, I celebrated twenty-five years without a drink. If I were asked to give a lead on this occasion (or a talk, or a share, or a qualification), depending on where you live, I’m not sure I’d say anything all that different than I usually do. I’d tell you a little bit about my story, perhaps one of the least-interesting drunkalogues ever, primarily characterized by poor decision-making involving men, money, and work, but not poor enough to provide anything especially hilarious or tragic. I’d tell you that when I gave up drinking, I hadn’t lost everything, but I hadn’t gained much of anything either. About all that was evident to me at age thirty, in one brief moment on my sofa alone with my beer, waiting for my verbally abusive actor boyfriend to call (best description of him ever borrowed from my friend Tod: “You know him, he plays the asshole in most movies”) was that this might be as good as it was going to get for me. Which is to say: not very.
So I quit. My expectations for what lay ahead, early on, were low, like, alone on my sofa, minus beer, low. I had no picture of what my life would look like in one year much less in twenty-five years. (It’s still generally true that I don’t ever have much of a vision for my future; that idea of a five-year-plan has always utterly baffled me. I hope and anticipate that I will still have my job in five years. But it never fails that things come up, in time, that one can’t expect, and sometimes they’re better than I might ever guess.) In one way, my idea of sober time then wasn’t much different than it is now: it’s still just time. I wasn’t in a hurry to accumulate sober time because I knew it came with actual time, at which I would be older. At thirty I felt mighty old already, watching my friends go to graduate school, begin careers, meet partners, have kids, do whatever adults do while I floated from job to job, extremely single, and waiting for, I think now, something like magic to strike me with the same good fortune as my friends. I was not in a hurry to be older. So I took the one day at a time suggestion in spite of my great resistance to anything resembling a cheesy slogan.
I know that there are those who would argue that alcoholism is a singularly extreme condition, and I get that, but I’ve always felt clear that there’s a lot of overlap between alcoholism and plain old ordinary humanity. I’m not inclined to experience profound pain or sadness or even certain lines of obsessive, circular thinking that I have leaned toward and said, “Oh that’s my alcoholism.” These seem to me like really human thoughts and feelings. The only certainty I’ve ever had about my alcoholism was the inability to know what would happen after I took the first drink, and that after I had taken the first drink, there were zero good results. The best I always hoped for was a respite from my feelings with no extreme damage. So when I quit, I took a lot of suggestions for how to stay quit, and I did a lot of work to help me stay quit, and I met a lot of friends whose lives seemed full and fun in spite of the absence of alcohol, friends who inspired me and went out for coffee with me every day for the first quite a few years and helped me not drink, and twenty-five years went by.
Things I have lived through, sober:
Moves up the wazoo. New York to LA back to New York to Chicago (the best) to Austin and back to New York again. Houses and apartments and apartments and houses and thirty-some boxes of books alone. That thing they say about moving being one of those big life changes is true. I have lost my shit at some point almost every time. Sober.
So. Much. Loss.
My mom was diagnosed with cancer when I had been sober for about four years; she died three years after that. I was still in the thick of trying to work through any number of issues, not least of which included being her daughter. I will report back when I have that all sorted out.
I lost my dad five years ago as well, to another crummy disease, Parkinson’s.
Plus, stay sober this long, and you will lose friends to the disease of addiction. That’s just the deal. It’s a shitty deal. Addicts die. I decided to better my odds of being one who doesn’t die of it and agreed to the terms.
Bonus material, sober:
The flip side of losing friends is making them. I leave my house, sometimes. I’m willing to walk into rooms, all kinds of rooms, by myself, and talk with people, sometimes even people I don’t already know, no matter how uncomfortable this makes me on occasion. Twenty-five years of walking into rooms have added up to a margin of comfort that’s a vast improvement over where it began. An early sober revelation was that no one thinks about me as much as I do and that usually gets me in the door.
I have published six books of fiction and co-written a film adaptation of one of them. Have faith in my word that nothing I had written before I got sober was worth reading, much less publishing, not to mention that I had neither the courage nor a lone clue about how to begin to take steps in the direction of a career that meant something to me. The word career was one that mystified me. Outside of my dwindling fantasies about writing for a living, I never imagined that I would do any one thing long enough to call a legit career. I have seen one of those books made into a stage play. (If ever there were an experience to recommend, that someone would do well to adapt to some form of psychotherapy, it’s to see a semi-autobiographical play in which actors playing you and your dead mom are working out your shit.)
I met and married a wonderful, sober man, and that foundation of sobriety allows us a way to communicate and to navigate conflict without doing harm. We have a dog, and we can keep him alive. We’ve kept him alive for almost eleven years. Before I quit drinking, I couldn’t keep a plant.
But this is the thing I say over and over and over again when I give that lead/share/qualification: the biggest gift of sobriety for me has been the freedom from the bondage of self. It’s relative to where I began, of course, and it fluctuates, and sometimes I have just enough experience to remember that I have tools to use that can mitigate that relentless, fear-based obsession with myself. I have had career disappointments, painful friendship breakups, all manner of things that haven’t gone my way. I have a different idea of happiness today than I did twenty-five years ago when I still hoped that one day I’d bounce out of bed every day like a sprite eager to spread fairy dust on everything in my path. But something I think, often, is that these twenty-five years have given me an extraordinary, ordinary life. My idea of happiness now is wanting the life that I have, being grateful for it and feeling useful above any unalloyed euphoria. Power to you if that’s your deal. It’s not mine. But that said, I am no longer trapped inside my brain by a greater percentage of thoughts devoted to myself (and not for nothing, a higher proportion of which were not favorable). I can see the value that my own, sometimes super shitty experiences might have for someone else. I have learned that my feelings won’t kill me. This was the reason I drank; any extreme of feeling, on the continuum of joy to despair, felt as though it would kill me. I have learned that I’m smart (a whole thing for a whole other essay) and I have become comfortable with how little I know. I have become able and willing to hold multiple ideas and feelings at the same time. I have become interested in the lives of others, in what I might contribute. Imagine.
It’s a big number, year-wise, twenty-five, and it’s hard to believe in some ways that anyone can exist without mitigating some of their feelings even just a little bit. I have said before that being conscious all the damn time is not easy. (Thank god sleep is still a thing.) If I were a person who could maybe have a glass of wine at the end of the day or one hit off someone else’s joint, I am so sure I would. You can trust that I have done the necessary research, pre-1992, to confirm that I am not that person. So for me, there’s work involved, ongoing work. In my case, as some say, a simple version of how I got here is that I didn’t drink and I didn’t die. Time passes no matter what, and it happens that I’ve passed a good bunch of it without drinking.
Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.
Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.