My Buddhist mentor’s forearms were painted with tattoos and sometimes he talked about his motorcycle. I didn’t think Buddhists were supposed to be so badass, but I was delighted when he said, “Look, I don’t fucking pretend to know anything.”
“There are three Cs to practice when dealing with your trauma,” he said to an audience somewhere. I listened to his podcast in my car. I was driving a ninety-mile distance home after a job, following the cone of my one working headlight through the fog. “Cooperation, creativity, compassion, and curiosity. So there are really four.” I thought it must be Buddhist math, or maybe he was thinking on his feet because he really didn’t fucking know anything. Since I didn’t either, I was relieved, but at the same time I hoped he knew just enough to make me okay again.
I wonder if airlines have designed planes for some species other than humans. It’s the only explanation for my body feeling twisted and forced into seat 22C. Though I am on the aisle, there is no room for my knees, my feet, my right elbow. We taxi away from Bangor International Airport in a dark fog that dissolves the previous night’s blizzard and melts its ice. It’s not even 6 a.m. The plane punches through the dark, down the runway, and then I doze in the strange, weighted quiet of takeoff.
Somewhere over the middle of America, the flight attendant bumps her cart into my elbow, and I ask if I can have a club soda. “Can I have the whole can?” This is my standard order. I want the whole can of whatever it is. Diet Coke. Tomato juice. They always say yes.
“No,” she says, “because I only have one and someone else might want some.”
I glance down the fuselage, down the aisle with its tiny, trip-proof runway lights, then back at her. “They don’t want any,” I offer, smiling, trying to charm her. My AA not-sponsor would tell me I am being manipulative, but I think it’s human to want what we need. (I have a not-sponsor instead of the normal kind because I am still learning to cooperate. Resistant. He tells me I am resistant.) I used to order worse things on flights than full cans of soda water, so this was at least one mark of progress in my campaign of self-improvement.
She puts a hand on her hip in a way that tells me she’s amused. “We’ll see about that.” The cart bumps on, and I lower my tray table to have a place to set the awkward little cup. Being denied what I want is new ground, even after eleven months of not drinking, and it creates an almost-imperceptible sharpness as I breathe in. She’s right, I know, and she’s doing her job. My eyes close and the back of my head presses into the stiff headrest.
Ten minutes later, she plunks the can on my tray. “You were right,” she says. “They didn’t want any.”
“I had money today, but I didn’t buy drugs.”
P, who attends the same AA meeting as me, tells us about his day. He tells us he sat in the kitchen of his trailer talking to the spider plant a friend gave him as a gift. “I just really like this plant and it made me happy to spend the morning with it.” We are all sitting around a big table in a church that I’d never attend otherwise.
I’m not much into faith, but I’ve had to find something to carry me toward a belief that this will get easier. It has to. It sometimes takes more power than I think I have to keep me in my seat at AA meetings where I am routinely told that all alcoholics are selfish. All alcoholics are liars. All alcoholics have minds that are dangerous neighborhoods where one should not go alone. All alcoholics need to let go and let God and other bullshit slogans that shatter when they hit my intellect. “You have to set your intellect over here,” Not-Sponsor told me when we met and drank strong coffee together in his house by the lake. He gestured with his hands as he said it, to indicate where we’re abstractly setting my abstract intellect. “It’s just in your way.” I drank his coffee, but thought it was a terrible idea to be less smart on purpose. I go to AA anyway because I do believe Not-Sponsor when he says that the monster living in my head wants to kill me.
I see P again at a meeting two weeks later. I tell him, “I’ve been thinking about you and your plant a lot. I’m thinking about getting myself a spider plant.”
P looks like he’s about twenty-three, but I’m told he’s closer to forty which is strange because it usually works the other way around for addicts. He ducks his head, and for a moment I can see his baseball cap but not his face. He meets my eyes, grinning, and says, “I’ve switched. Now I’m talking to my lighter.”
In an early session with my smart new therapist, I told her, “I have drinking dreams, and I wake up feeling guilty.” In the dream, my fingers cradled a newly empty pint glass that I didn’t remember lifting, but a thin trail of foam pointed right at me.
She said, “In case there’s any doubt you’re an alcoholic.”
I didn’t like the certainty with which she wielded the word, but of course only alcoholics have guilty dreams about this thing they might someday do, will almost surely do. Most of us do.
Later, I said, “I admit that I’m angry this is happening to me.” I expected her to say something placating. I wanted her to say something placating. I wanted her to tell me that anger wasn’t worth the energy. I wanted her to disarm me of this negativity.
“You should be,” she said. “You have a disease that wants to kill you. You should be furious.”
I can’t turn the pages of Boxing for Women with my gloves on. The gloves are bulbous and lime green, and the word “Title” wraps around the wrists in cherry lettering. I love them. But if I can’t turn from page twenty-two to twenty-three, then I can’t know if the next move in the sequence is to work the square or hold the snake position and throw one-two combinations. Sometimes, I bend down and turn the page with my tongue. Sometimes, I shrug and start throwing crosses and jabs in whatever order I feel like. Usually, I fall into the same pattern: right cross, left jab, right cross, left jab, right cross, left jab. I stay there, not thinking, until everything hurts. I promptly forget this mistake until the next time I make it.
My drinking was just like my punching. Shifting weight and pivoting or shooting straight from the shoulder, the glass always found its way to my face, the alcohol always punched past my defense line. I was always left sweaty and weak.
Ask me why I box and I can’t tell you. My friend, a thirteen-years-sober amateur boxer who lives in Chicago, helped me shop online for the equipment. He sent me the link to the speed bag setup, and I sent him back a link for some lightweight, black gloves I wanted to buy. He messaged back, “You don’t need those for the speed bag. You’re supposed to be bare-handed.”
“But they look really badass,” I typed.
“LOL,” he typed. “I understand that, but you really don’t need them.” He included a goofy, grinning emoji.
I bought the gloves, of course. I love them so much that I wear them through other parts of the workouts from Boxing for Women: jumping rope, pushups, leg lifts, crunches. I only slip on the green gloves—the bulky, padded gloves—for the heavy bag punching where I practice my cross, jab, hook combos until the timer buzzes. A combination becomes body memory, a thing I don’t have to be in charge of. The yogis call these samskaras when they occur in the spirit: impressions left by thoughts, actions, and intents. Our samskaras accumulate over a lifetime, building mountain ranges of psychic scarring and healing. I imagine them like continents, rising and falling in geologic time. They make changes to a full-scale model of myself, creating a relief map.
“How’s the boxing going?” Boxing Friend messaged me one day at work.
“Good,” I wrote back. “But I’m not very good at it. You will never be allowed to watch.”
“LOL,” he typed. “And your sobriety? How’s that going?”
Hanging a speed bag is not a simple process. The bag suspends from a swivel that fits into a hole in the middle of a circle of coated plywood three feet across. That rig attaches to two brackets that screw into the wall. The whole thing has to be level, which requires an almost infinite patience for tightening and loosening nuts on bolts and tapping parts with a mallet to move them fractions of degrees. It cost me hours and some swearing to get the thing installed, but once it was done I took one step back and threw the first punch of my life that wasn’t at myself. My fist, protected by the padding of the badass glove, knocked the bag into the backboard. My arm completed the follow-through, and I hung there, suspended for half a breath. Then I laughed. I laughed like I had not laughed before, my body discovering some forgotten form of release, and I doubled over in laughter so deep it almost made me ache while the bag bonked itself out of momentum over me. There had been so little laughter for so long that I felt a switch flip. A samskara turned itself inside out. A mountain range inverted.
Because I had already compulsively watched every movie about alcoholism on Netflix, I started compulsively watching boxing movies instead. I watched Denzel Washington play the falsely accused Hurricane. I watched Stallone’s Rocky train in his grey sweatshirt. I listened as Forrest Whittaker urged a bruised Jake Gyllenhaal in Southpaw, “You gotta quit stopping punches with your face.”
I want to tell Boxing Friend that I’ve been stopping punches with my face, because he’s a writer and appreciates a good metaphor. Instead I say, “It’s good! I’m doing great.”
The truth is different. The truth is always different. At times, I am on the mat, looking up at alcoholism, tall and square-shouldered, and the ref is counting. But Boxing Friend already knows about the KO punch and the count, and sometimes speaking truth’s name had a summoning effect so why do it?
“Great job,” he says, and sends a high-five emoji.
“I hope you know,” I typed to him on another day when I thought he might be having a hard time, “that I’m always here in your corner, ready with a towel and a water bottle.” Every alcoholic, no matter how many days we’ve accumulated, has days when we think our knees might fold beneath us and we might go down hard. This happens to everyone, but for alcoholics a bad day smells like mortality.
On a different day, when Boxing Friend suspected I might have caught a whiff of the end, he typed, “Sometimes you just need to tuck your chin, bite down on your mouth guard, and move forward with your gloves up.”
A writer friend and I were talking about the lack of a God on a flight from Tampa to Boston when we hit severe turbulence. It started with little bumps, then escalated fast. I googled “turbulence” the next day and learned that turbulence occurs when cool air hits warm. It’s the same thing that causes lightning storms. The pressure drops. Ions turn and glare at each other. Fights break out. Violence erupts.
Writer Friend held my hand and I squeezed my favorite AA chip. My three-month chip was a repurposed poker chip with little pictures of dice around the circumference. It had the word “sober” stamped on it in gold lettering, but the o, b, and e had worn away under the rubbing of my thumb. Beneath our feet, the plane plunged and rose, the hard plastic of the overhead bins and the walls squeaking and popping, the contents shifting and sliding. Outside our window, the red tip of the wing rose sharply then dipped. I turned away, unable to look. Minutes before, I had said, “I don’t believe in God. I believe in something, but that’s not it.”
“My mother finds great comfort in attributing everything to God,” she had said. “I have so many questions.”
My free hand gripped the seat back in front of me, and I thought of my son and daughter being un-mothered while still in middle school. The rushing sound of air outside changed, got louder, and I wondered what would happen to the house. Would my wife be able to keep it? The pilot asked the flight attendants to stay in their seats, and I tried to tell myself that, if I had to be, I could be ready to die. I imagined what it would be like if the business class seats to the front were to abruptly dip out of sight, and we all faced the rushing, unforgiving earth together. I wondered how long the plunge would take and what we would do in those minutes.
My eyes intently held onto the black shoelaces of the man sitting across the aisle. They were double-knotted and a little shiny. I had learned this mindfulness trick from a book about Buddhism called Just One Thing. It was the only thing I remembered from the book, which is maybe where the title came from. I folded myself over, putting my cheek on my knee so I could still see the shoes. The man wearing the shoes seemed to telescope away from me, like he was in another galaxy. If I stayed focused, stayed mindful, maybe the Gods of Aeronautical Engineering and Good Luck would hear this weird shoelace prayer and set us gently on Earth.
Two hours later, waiting for my suitcase at Logan airport, I balanced on legs that barely held me, put my hand in my pocket, and realized my three-month chip was gone, lost in the hand-holding and seat-back-gripping and fist-clenching. I stood numb, and the baggage slid past.
Smart Therapist and I drew Venn diagrams in the air between us, finding the places where the trauma and the turbulence and the addiction and the more general craziness shared real estate. She told me to imagine draping those areas in crime scene tape or placing orange cones around them. “Don’t go in there,” she said. “Not yet.” It was a map of which neighborhoods to avoid. Stay in the well-lit areas.
One day, as I desperately tried to explain to us both that there was a clear rationale behind the justification for the reason for some bullshit alcoholic thing I had done, I noticed that she was smiling just a little and her clarifying questions had taken on an amused tone.
I stopped, mid-sentence. “Wait. Are you making fun of me right now?”
She held her hands up in surrender, palms toward me. “I swear,” she said, smiling fully. “I’m trying really hard not to.”
There was one beat of both of us only breathing, and then I laughed with her.
While the swinging doors of the chapel closed behind me, I saw Not-Sponsor sitting, leaning in close to a local editor I knew just a little. There is usually only one reason to come to an AA meeting, but as I unzipped my coat, I stupidly tried to figure out why Editor Friend was there. I had just seen him a couple of weeks earlier at a party, where we had stood next to a glittering altar of booze bottles and chatted about the vague details of life: holiday plans, how are the kids, how is work, we are all too busy and barely making it. It had meant nothing to me at the time that Editor Friend had a glass of something dark and compelling in his hand, only that I was fiercely practiced at not caring what others drank. Relapse looks like what all the normal people are doing unless you know the backstory.
At the end of the meeting, I gave him a hug and said, “I’m sorry you’re here.” Whatever else it is, AA is full of hugs.
“That could have been me,” I processed with Not-Sponsor in his house on the lake. “Why didn’t that relapse happen to me?”
“Imagine if you had both been going to meetings and you had both known,” he said in that annoying way he has of making all the lessons into lessons. He meant that if I had known that Editor Friend was supposed to be sober, I might have stopped it from happening just by being there. He meant that by simply existing near each other, we can intervene. “It might have turned out different.”
“If I had known,” I texted to Editor Friend later, “it might have been different.” But it wasn’t different.
We began a correspondence from our respective desks. We sent poetry. Wordplay. Swapped insecurities. I sent him uninformed, unsolicited medical advice. We talked of commas and reflexive verbs. Recovery. We handed our objections to the heavy-handedness of AA back and forth between us like coins, smoothed from rubbing and worry. While I was typing at my desk, his emails would pop up and make me smile. We distracted each other as his count of early sober days re-accumulated.
“If you make it to three months,” I told him, “I’ll bring an ice cream sandwich to the meeting for you.”
“I’m in,” he answered, but I don’t think he believed me.
Sixty-four days later, when I handed him the soggy, melting ice cream sandwich, his smile was filled with such surprised delight that my heart grew a size and a half. In later months, I offered him home-baked pies with all-butter crusts. Together, we built a sidewalk out of sugar and Oxford commas that skirted the orange safety cones. We stayed in the light.
There aren’t really six Cs, and recovery—whether it’s successful or not—ends only at the grave, but Buddhist Mentor told me in our last conversation, “I think you’re kicking ass,” and in the moment it felt like some sort of safe landing. We were Skyping: him in a T-shirt in Colorado and me in a flannel in Maine; we faced each other and he listened while I described my campaign of self-improvement: Meditating. Not-Sponsor. Punching bag. Weekly meeting. Boxing Friend. Running. Editor Friend. Smart Therapist. Ice cream sandwiches. Prayers to the God of Good Luck. Spider Plant.
“You’re doing a lot,” he said, “I think that’s great.” A pause, then, “I mean, if you’re still doing that much stuff in two years, maybe it would be too much?”
Soon after, I broke up with Buddhist Mentor because he was too expensive. Buddhists have mortgage payments like the rest of us, but I needed to pay my own more than I needed to help pay his. Besides, I was apparently kicking ass, though as successes go, kicking ass at not having my own ass kicked felt more like a draw than a win.
A week later, I said to Smart Therapist, “I had this radical idea.” The idea had come to me where most good ideas do: in the shower. It had bubbled up through the drain or been squeezed from the bottle of fancy shampoo I treated myself to as a reward for good behavior. But the idea had been so radical, I had refused to look at it until safely tucked into the comfortable chair in Smart Therapist’s comfortable office.
She waited. Listening.
“What if I’m actually already fine?” The idea now sounded as stupid as it was radical, but I let it sit there, unmolested by further words or other examples of my flawed thinking.
She waited a beat. Then, “Is there a down side to being fine?”
It was a surprising question, but didn’t surprise me at all. I knew the answer immediately. “If I’m fine, then this is just who I have to be. Forever.” Adrenaline unfolded into my bloodstream and sped up my heart and not in a good way. Was I done? Is this really as good as I get? I ran a finger along the curved rim of my can of club soda. There must be more.
“I think you are fine. You’re living your big, beautiful life,” she said. “And there’s still more to do.” I took it to mean that I was getting an A+, but it was still only my freshman year.
She said that alcohol would someday stop whispering my name, stop waiting for me between cars in dark parking lots, stop waiting for me to leave the back door unlocked so it could slip in and drown me. There was work ahead, but being fine simply meant I didn’t have to die. Not today. It might take forever, some tricks of aeronautics, a lot of luck, and a series of prayers to minor deities, but it was possible, through all that, to still be fine as I understood it. I got to decide.
I slipped these wisdoms into my pocket, where they still ride next to my steadily accumulating AA chips, and I rub them smooth.
Today, pulling on my jacket, I was startled by a muscle rising out of my forearm. A pronator or a carpi. It had slowly erupted over the months of punching objects softer than myself. I formed a fist and flexed my arm, popping the muscle erect. I touched it with the finger of my other hand. It was firm. It was relief.
Rumpus original art by Maryam Afaq Ansari.
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, interviews, and book reviews 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.