Voices on Addiction: The Ghost Inside
Three months from turning thirty, a responsible adult with a job, car, and apartment, I crawled like a desperate animal into a nondescript room with outdated white wicker chairs and coffee-stained cushions set up in rows. Too much loud chatter and too many people, I cringed. Prepared to scream or kill you if you came close. Repelled and resistant. Gripping intestinal twisting. Twenty-one days dry and frustrated, creeping out of my skin, I looked something like this: hard, stiff bones and muscle, just try to bend me you motherfucker. Don’t look at me. Don’t touch me don’t help me. My friend Alice took me by the hand, and guided me inside, found two chairs and we sat.
Time passed, how much I don’t know. Unaware who had control, I stood and spoke: “I’m Kim. I’m an alcoholic.” I sat down, held my breath. Time slowed and I looked around, eyes unfocused seeing colors purple, green, blue, rich in hue. Trapped in my head, without a body, on an edge, I trembled, numb, no memory or sensory knowledge.
Alice stared at me wide-eyed, mouth open, almost as shocked as I was. What did I just say?
The meeting continued. My body shut off. For the next hour, brain waves halted, neurons, synapses stopped snapping, pathways broken. I absorbed voices without hearing them.
Finally, fuzzy blackness and fresh air found my face. A door approached, revealed light, freedom, and the parking lot. Barely outside, my legs wobbled and I dropped to the ground blocking the exit for people behind me. It was unlike me to cause a scene or cry in front of others. But I wasn’t crying. My lungs desperate and hyperventilating, fingers tingling, I sobbed. Unmitigated, uninhibited sobbing. My shoulders released until I hung weightless and dizzy. A tangible and concrete something rushed into and out of me, a (boom!), quick like the fastest flicker of an eyelid but it lit up every appendage, fleshy or hard, tight or loose. Crystalized molecules scraped and circled my skin and I lost track of who and where I was. And I didn’t care because my un-self sat there, unrecognizable, experiencing purity or otherworldly atoms, electrons and protons of me in outer space. Burning.
Twenty-one days prior I woke up early, hungover and sick, after stumbling home drunk the night before and bingeing on a bag of Brahms jellybeans and a jar of honey. Determined not to get fat, my broken body showed up at the gym every morning regardless of how I felt. That particular morning I felt like raw sewage. Carefully, I crawled onto a treadmill next to my friend Alice.
She smiled and lifted an eyebrow as if to ask what the hell happened to you?
I snarled back. “Yeah, I know I look like shit.” I shoved the hair up off my forehead. Everything hurt. “I’m so disgusting. Do you know what I ate last night?”
Alice heaved herself onto the rotating steps of a StairClimber, her strong tan thighs, ripped arm muscles covered in sweat. “Hungover too?” She wiped her forehead with a towel, her short brown hair limply stuck to her scalp, and looked at me.
I felt her dark probing eyes on me and turned to meet her stare. “Yeah, so?”
Over the past year Alice and I had become friends: arriving at the gym before sunrise, sharing a passion for exercise and pushing our bodies. She also happened to be fourteen years sober in a 12-step program, and recovered from an eating disorder.
“Why don’t you not drink or eat sugar, just for today?” she asked.
I breathed in. “What?” Sharp razors punctured my hungover skull. What?
The treadmill slowly picked up speed and I started running. My stomach gurgled then cramped. “Fine. I feel like shit anyway.” I huffed and Alice smiled.
“Great, we’ll talk tomorrow.”
At the gym the following morning, Alice didn’t waste time with hellos. “How’d it go last night?”
I turned away as I answered, “Fine, no problem.” My nose in the air like I showed her!
She called out after me. “Can you do it again… tonight?”
I twirled around, body barely keeping up, and shot her a look. One hand rested on my hip as I climbed onto a StairMaster. “Of course I can.”
Alice tossed her towel on the machine next to mine. “Awesome.”
Tightness clenched my throat. “Wait, really? You’re serious?”
Her machine cranked twice and she started stepping. We both looked ahead, through the wall of glass in front of us offering a 180-degree view of the Pacific Ocean. I waited for a response but she didn’t blink. She was serious.
This continued, each morning at the gym, Alice’s inquisitive sweaty stare and the same question: How about tonight? Can you do it again? I wanted to poke her eyes out. Yes, fine. I’ll do it. On my eighth day without a drink, she phoned and asked if I wanted to go with her to a 12-step meeting.
“Um, I don’t think so,” I scoffed. “I’m really busy.” Really, really busy, busy scratching my fingernails across the walls of my apartment. Busy scribbling in my journal that I was losing my mind.
“Well, if you change your mind, call me.”
I was stunned. Why would she ask me that? I knew alcoholics. I grew up watching my father drink, until he finally got sober when I was seventeen. She doesn’t understand. Drinking wasn’t my problem. I didn’t drink in the mornings or have any DUIs. I had never lost a job or crashed a car. I’m just cleaning myself out, taking a break. Detoxing. I’ll lose some weight, feel better, look better, and when she stops asking me that question, I’ll get back to living my life.
More days passed without a drink and the sharp, nagging pressure between my ears reached a crescendo. I thought I was losing my mind. I went to my job as an Account Executive at a big advertising firm, fingers clenched, and hung on until I could leave, get home, and watch TV until sleep came.
This repeated, day after day.
One afternoon at work, just out of a client meeting, I closed myself in an empty project room and called Alice. “Why are you making me do this?!” I paced the room, skimming the edges of the conference table where the creative storyboards from our meeting were spread out. I watched my co-workers through the glass walls as they talked and moved about in the hallway.
“I can’t take it! I don’t know what’s wrong with me!” My voice was edgy and frantic.
But each time Alice answered my call a warm draft widened my veins. “You’re doing great, Kim. How many days has it been?”
I stopped pacing and stared down at my hand, chewed a hangnail. My hands felt not part of me; my voice, a stranger’s. One moment I was cold, then hot and clammy. When I wiped sweat from the back of my neck, my hand came up dry. I answered her through clenched teeth: “Ssssixteen days!” I turned around and saw two colleagues staring at me. I took my hand out of my mouth, inhaled deeply and smoothed out my skirt. Sat down. Crossed my legs, then tucked stray pieces of hair behind my ear. Look normal. Nothing’s wrong here. No one could hear me, but I covered my mouth anyway, whispered loudly into the phone. “Seriously, why can’t I stop crying?”
This time it was Alice who inhaled deeply. “Well… you could always come with me to a meeting?”
I stood and moved toward the door. “That isn’t an answer!” I shouted, hung up the phone, and walked out of the room into the hall.
On the twenty-first day, my phone rang at eight p.m. I muted the TV and quickly swallowed the handful of tortilla chips I’d just stuffed in my mouth. “Hel…?” I coughed.
“Hello?” It was Alice.
“Hey. I’m going to a meeting tomorrow morning. Want me to pick you up?”
Prickles, sharp and steamy up my back. Energy raced through my body, overtook my brain. Raw and numb, I scratched at the angry skin on my face. Nothing made sense. My life up to that point had been so controlled, managed carefully with massage and yoga and cleanses and exercise and fucking married men and drinking and eating and working and lying to myself. I held it together, did all the right things. I was also miserable. Could barely breath I hated myself so much. But was I an alcoholic? The idea had never crossed my mind. The more I reflected on it, the less I understood. Despite all the classes and degrees and studying and trying, nothing and no one could help me, until I shattered. Until everything I knew broke. Until I was desperate, out of options: ideas, platitudes, excuses, intellectual, pathological justifications, and pathetic poor-me exclamations. “Okay” I answered. As if someone else, from a place I didn’t know existed.
Collapsed on a step outside the door of a 12-step meeting, weary and wrung out, I stared at the cracked concrete of the parking lot. I had just admitted a ghost existed inside me where a lost girl drifted through each day. Now my body trembled. Come alive. Greedy for oxygen.
Alice stood nearby, a protector moving people aside to make space for me to breathe. “Your face, you look different,” she said, and hugged me with her eyes.
I laughed. “Yeah, I look like a fucking wreck.” Choked on snot and saliva, and light-headed, I leaned forward, forearms resting on my thighs.
“No, I’m serious,” Alice, said. “Your face is different.” She held out her hand. “Come on, I’ll buy you a coffee.” Offered her hand and hoisted me up.
I wiped my face with both palms. A gush of heat found me despite the cool, crisp seventy-degree temperature in LA. You would call it a ‘perfect day.’ Purple-black stars shot in front of my eyes. I noticed other people, voices around me, my body energy slowly returning to itself. I turned to Alice. “I feel like I lost 500 pounds, like I’m floating, or something.”
I stared at the open doorway where particles of me had just stumbled, mystified from another world. “So this…” My voice trailed off. I motioned toward the door, where people still mingled, talking, laughing. “This is what’s wrong with me?”
“Uh huh.” Alice smiled and opened the car door. “It’s the hardest and the greatest thing you’ll ever do.”
With nothing to lose, I decided, just for that day, to believe her. But I had no idea what she was talking about. Today, nineteen years later, still clean and sober and still becoming, I do.
Rumpus original art by Karen Cygnarowicz.
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.