Voices on Addiction: How to Stay

By

One night in my early forties, I came to bed and said something curt to my husband. His reply jolted me. “Have you noticed how we only fight at night?” he said. “Why is that?” He wasn’t joking or accusing. His optimism is the secret to our marriage—he was hopeful I might have an answer.

I did have the answer, though I’d refuse to say it out loud for another two years. Before coming upstairs I had once again finished an entire bottle of wine, my husband became a target for my pent-up irritation.

Not long after this conversation, in the stacks of the public library, I cautiously opened a book about alcoholism and read that one of the qualities of moderate drinkers is that they do not think about drinking all the time. This concept dazzled me. I closed the book without taking the quiz at the end. I already knew I wasn’t a moderate drinker.

 

In my early twenties, I graduated from college, moved to Montana, and built a harp on my kitchen table. For the next two years I went to school to become a music-thanatologist, someone who accompanies dying people and their families with music. To support myself, I worked full-time in a group home for teenagers. These spaces seemed disparate, but they were both about learning to stay and do something useful in the presence of suffering. Music helped, whether it was harp being played in a hospital room or a Reba McEntire album in the group home’s living room.

I wanted to be a good person doing good work. But grappling with human mortality as a young adult was taxing, my shifts at thee group home were frequently chaotic, and when friends invited me to go out drinking after work I always said yes. On days without invitations, I stopped for wine on my way home. One night in the supermarket parking lot, I remembered I had been there just two days before buying the cheapest red wine with the brightest label. Would anyone notice? This is a college town with beer and wine at every grocery store, the voice of my practical New England upbringing reminded me. Nobody’s looking at you.

The young man at the register was about my age. He watched my bottle travel down the conveyer belt and gave me a concerned look. “Are you buying wine again?” he asked. “Weren’t you in here a couple of nights ago?”

“Yeah, I was,” I said. “Guess I need to start going to Safeway.”

Neither of us laughed.

 

Although my work life moved toward less stressful jobs—with better salaries, health insurance, and once, an office with a fireplace—I never outgrew the belief that a work day should end in heavy drinking. By my late twenties, I was the only one in my friend group who consistently wanted a third round. By my thirties, I occasionally leaned in close to the bathroom mirror and worried that the redness on my face was a sign of long-term drinking. I wondered what, if anything, was going to stop me.

But nothing stopped me. Just as I had always been a good student, employee, musician, and friend, I was an honor roll drinker. I always remembered to wash the glasses before I went to sleep and take bottles out for recycling. My annual reviews at work were good. I published a book, I sent out birthday cards, and I returned my library books on time.

When I met my husband, the divorced father of two children, I noticed that he bought wine by the case and liked to drink a glass with dinner. At his house, the wine bottle was right there on the dinner table, charming and acceptable. I hid my drinking in plain sight. When we got married and had a baby, I told myself that drinking was what parents did to relax after the kids went to bed.

After a while I could see that what I was doing was not just a fun coping strategy for messy, middle-aged life. It was a doorway out of that life. I drank to blur the edges, to give my life a whiff of danger, and to smother my rage at the clichéd division of labor that left me in charge of the family calendar and the unending school forms to be filled out. Drinking gave my anger a delicious, rebellious secret to suck on. Behold my hidden depths, I said to no one as I emptied the dishwasher. I am not who you think I am. At night I floated away on a sea of gin and resentment. I was right there on the living room couch, but I was gone.

For two years, I reckoned with my drinking while sentences from that library book haunted me: You take the first drink. The second drink takes itself. I considered other things I had quit, like smoking cigarettes. Even though it had been eight years, and I’d only been an occasional smoker, I still missed it terribly. When I thought about not drinking, I understood that my yearning for alcohol was the same sort of creature, one that I could quiet but not banish. It was never going to be about not wanting to drink. I was going to have to stop myself, and then I was going to have to live with the longing.

 

When I decided to get sober, I told no one—not even myself. I began surreptitiously reading sobriety blogs like Tired of Thinking About Drinking. I pondered the author’s offerings of sober support and browsed the gift shop. Among the mugs and jewelry was a sterling silver cuff bracelet, stamped with the words “Stay Here.” I looked at the bracelet and began sobbing.

That word, “stay,” called back the anxiety and panic attacks I had experienced in my twenties. A friend gave me a book by the Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön, and Chödrön’s writing has guided me since, especially her teachings about learning not to struggle with emotions like fear and rage. She compares learning to stay with ourselves in meditation to training a dog: If you beat a dog, it will become obedient but inflexible. She writes, “By contrast, training with kindness results in someone who is flexible and confident, who doesn’t become upset when situations are unpredictable and insecure.” I don’t have much of a meditation practice, but when I feel trapped and panicked in highway traffic or a stopped subway car, I call to mind Chödrön’s voice and gently tell myself: Stay… Stay… Stay. I bought the bracelet.

Drinking is the opposite of staying. For the rest of the summer I inched sideways towards sobriety like a crab. I watched myself drink, hoping—against reason and experience—that I could find something that would redeem my behavior. But I’d been watching myself for nearly twenty years, and I knew I’d never become a moderate drinker. On a Sunday night in August, I drank a bottle of rosé, recycled the bottle, and washed my glass.

The next morning was my day one.

 

In these early, tender days, I wanted to go to a courthouse and put my name on an official list. My drinking just died, I considered posting on Facebook. Please bring casseroles. In the absence of my old comforts, I longed for the markers of a new life. Should I get a dog? New glasses? Should I take up Cross Fit? I was tempted, but I had read enough Pema Chödrön to know the real work was staying here, where I felt unsteady.

Instead of dyeing my hair, I read books and essays about sobriety. I had already found Kristi Coulter’s essay, “Enjoli.” Now I devoured Lit by Mary Karr; Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle; and Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp, a book I had already read, years before in Montana, and ignored any connection to.

I had been certain that sobriety would be one long, colorless punishment. I was wrong; things got better right away. I know this isn’t true for everyone who gets sober, but the punishing boredom I feared never materialized. The tentative satisfaction of finding myself past the first day made me want to string more time together. At night, I poured myself a plain tonic water and found I could get to bedtime without too much longing or anxiety. I went to bed early and in the morning, I woke up calm and rested instead of pinched with nausea and regret.

Having more clarity energized me, but I was still ashamed of all the holidays when I had been secretly drunk, the bedtimes I had rushed my child through in order to get to a bottle of wine, and the nights out when my real date had been the cocktail menu and not my husband. How could I think I deserved casseroles? How could I expect anyone to take care of me after I revealed my destructive secret? All along I had known better, worried over it, and done it anyway.

I thought my husband would be furious when I told him. But instead he did everything he could to help, quietly whisking away wine glasses from holiday place settings and preemptively talking to friends so that I wouldn’t have to. “Are you worried that I failed you because I didn’t know?” he asked. Of course I wasn’t. It turns out that if you are successful at teaching the people around you to ignore something right in front of them, they will also fail to notice when it’s gone.

 

I knew I needed to find people to talk to and that there were plenty of AA meetings in my neighborhood. When I thought about showing up at a meeting, though, I got hung up on the words: alcoholic, recovery, steps. Even sober made me dizzy with uncertainty. Was that a t-shirt I wanted to put on? The math all added up—alcohol had consumed my life (check!) and now I had stopped (check!) and needed community (check!). Still, I felt raw and strange about my in-between state, no longer a drinker but not yet firmly planted in sobriety. I was afraid I didn’t belong at AA, and even more afraid that I did.

Instead, I signed up and paid for a year of online sober support on the site where I’d bought the bracelet. Belle Robertson, who writes Tired of Thinking About Drinking, offers many free sober supports, like one-minute audio clips, case studies sent by mail, and helpful emails she sends three to four times a day. For a while, these were enough. Then, I signed up for her “sober jumpstart,” a suite of audio and blog resources, and a year of individual pen pal support. It was like finding a smart girlfriend who only wanted to talk about my sobriety. Her clear, practical advice helped me learn that that white-knuckling it through my life was not a badge of honor; it was a leftover symptom of overdrinking. I could now try adding supports like sleeping, exercise, and treats, make sobriety my primary goal, and expect less of myself in areas where that was possible.

This had never occurred to me before. I’d treated drinking like a life raft. I’d always believed that there was no fire that could not be extinguished with several generous pours of red wine. When sober writers talked about sleeping and seltzer and self-care, I thought they were talking to someone else.

I was wrong. Caroline Knapp writes of her decision to stop drinking, “I had always thought: I drink because I’m unhappy. Just then, I shifted the equation, rearranged the words: Maybe, just maybe, I’m unhappy because I drink.”

This was the biggest shock of all: I had it backwards. Drinking was not a life raft. It was an anchor, and I wore it like a necklace. When I finally managed to unclasp it, it went straight to the bottom and didn’t take me with it.

 

When I was about ninety days sober, I went to my twenty-fifth high school reunion. Midway through the evening, a man I barely remembered asked if I needed a drink.

“Sure,” I said. “Diet Coke.” He looked at me for an extra second and walked to the bar. When he returned, the soda was in a fancier glass than I had expected. I wondered if he had misheard me and ordered a rum and Coke.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “They ran out of the soda glasses, but I made sure it’s just Diet Coke.” I had spent the last several hours condensing twenty-five years into two sentences. The room around me had gotten louder and louder. The loneliness I’d feared began to surface as I watched my classmates disappear into their drinking, leaving me with no one to talk to. Just as I feeling overwhelmed, this time-traveler from my high school French class reached out and grounded me with his kindness: making sure the bartender had only poured Diet Coke into that glass. This small gesture helped me stay with my weary, fragile self. Somewhere in me, I am still bowing in gratitude.

 

The miracle of sobriety is that the anchor is gone. It’s still early and I’ve been on enough failed low-carb diets to know that I’m better at epiphanies than I am at follow-through. I do understand that alcohol is not the same as my son’s Halloween candy, which I often tell myself I won’t eat and then definitely do eat. Alcohol is a time bomb, and I don’t want to blow up the house.

I’ve been sober nearly three years. My relationship to alcohol is no longer an urgent part of my identity. Being sober has been integrated into my larger story, and, like an old apartment or my high school job, I don’t think about it very much. When other people are drinking, I tell myself this comforting mantra: everyone has a lifetime allotment of drinks, and I’ve already finished all of mine.

 

One day after school, my five-year-old son and I were standing in the upstairs hallway, looking for a game to play before it was time to make dinner. He’d been singing a new song, and I realized it was: “If You Don’t Start Drinkin’ (I’m Gonna Leave)” by George Thorogood and The Destroyers. A CD mix I made years ago had surfaced, and I had no idea he’d paid attention to the lyrics.

“What’s that song about?” I asked him, curious about what he understood.

“It’s about drinking alcohol,” he said. Why was I surprised? One of his first fifty words was “wine.” We save our children from absolutely nothing.

As I debated what to say next he asked, “Mom, do you drink alcohol?”

“No. I used to, but I don’t anymore,” I said.

“Why not?” he asked.

“I didn’t like the way it made me feel.”

“How did it make you feel?” he asked.

“Tired,” I said. “It made me lose my patience, and sometimes it made me angry.”

That answer was enough for him. He went into another room, dragged a feather bed onto the floor beside me, and climbed in. “Pretend I’m a baby bird and this blanket is my nest,” he said. “Stay with me while I take a nap.”

“Okay, baby bird.” I said. “You lay down in your nest. I’ll stay. I’m just going to stay right here.”

***

Rumpus original art by Natasha Donovan.


Jennifer L. Hollis is a writer, music-thanatologist, and the author of Music at the End of Life: Easing the Pain and Preparing the Passage (Praeger). Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Progressive, the Christian Century, and other publications. She was a 2018 finalist for the Breakwater Review's Peseroff Prize Poetry Contest. You can find her online at www.jenniferhollis.com. More from this author →