Voices on Addiction: Keep It Simple, Sweetheart
Turning Point: Fall, 1980s, Austin
I sit in my one-bedroom apartment my first year in graduate school in a new city. It’s late, and I’m drunk. I am holding a paring knife, part of the moving-in gift of cutlery from my grandmother. I know to cut vertically, but I do not push down.
The next day, I realize I could be drunk and commit suicide by mistake. I imagine my soul protesting: “No! I didn’t mean it. I was drunk!” That moment, I choose sobriety to avoid the posthumous shame of drunk, unintended suicide.
How do you feel, telling that moment?
I’d rather discuss the lack of images that hook me. That first sentence? Bores me to tears. And now I’m talking in clichés—not an auspicious start.
You avoided describing how you felt.
Brilliant observation. I’d rather not talk about that moment. It’s as true as I can get it.
No… wait. I played with a knife on my wrist while drunk more than once. I don’t know how many times. How many times did I call someone in the middle of the night and slur out a pitiable suicidal monologue? It’s not as if I entertained suicide once and the next day decided to get sober. After that moment I describe above, it still took another five years before I stopped drinking.
So, why did you write the story as if you were struck sober?
Narrative felicity. The truth is more mundane. I was a typical drunk who got more and more suicidal and depressed as my drinking increased. I wanted to kill myself—while I was drunk. Pretty pathetic.
For someone in recovery, you don’t sound very accepting of yourself.
Did you think someone gets sober and poof, life is perfect? Not my experience. In fact, today, at thirty-two years sober and sixty-four years old, I am more fearful and anxious than ever.
Then why not drink?
Do you know how hard it is to get sober? I never want to do that first year of sobriety again. And the routine of alcoholism: I end up sloppy drunk, maudlin, suicidal; I get into damaging relationships; I vow yet again not to have another drink and then wake up wondering how I got drunk. It’s phenomenally boring. Predictable. Deadly.
I stay sober because I’m curious. I want to know what I will learn from the next challenge, conflict, loss. For some, sobriety makes life easier. One guy in meetings used to gush about his infinitely better life, and I imagined hitting him over the head. I can only testify to my own experiences—deaths of too-young friends and family, illness, unemployment, car accidents, surgery, daily physical pain. The good stuff, too: being a sober mom, apologizing more easily, learning who I am, loving more simply.
Then there’s that whole life or death thing; every recovering alcoholic faces that choice. I chose life. Maybe not at first—reading my own words here, I can still feel my shame, my desire to quit drinking because I didn’t want to make a mistake. I kept thinking, if I accidentally kill myself when I’m drunk, I’ll never outlive the embarrassment. I know that doesn’t make sense. But if I was going to commit suicide, I didn’t want it to be alcohol’s decision. I knew I was drinking too much. I wondered if I was an alcoholic. Then, I stopped on my own. Until I couldn’t stop anymore on my own.
First Blackout: New Year’s Eve, Early 1970s, Connecticut
When I return from a summer in Germany as an exchange student, I am seventeen, starting my senior year of high school, and I finally have a boyfriend. We are both virgins but that fall we’ve discovered sex. Still, I find myself alone on New Year’s Eve, my boyfriend celebrating with friends but the snow and ice confining me at home, where I attend my parents’ large party. I feel bereft. Marooned.
I stay downstairs in the kitchen and drink two tall tumblers of rum and root beer. My mom and sisters shuttle through, bringing empty glasses, replenishing dips. A family friend home on Christmas break from college sits with me. After the rum and root beer, I drink a bottle of champagne, maybe two. Before sliding down onto the floor, I remember this family friend placing his mouth over mine and scavenging a kiss. I remember a tongue, and then not much else. He must have dragged me up two flights of stairs to the floor I shared with my sisters. I come to while kneeling at the toilet, my mom standing over me in her shiny party dress, smelling of Shalimar, Lucky Strikes, and whiskey. After I throw up, I slur, “Goddamn this fucking shit.”
Mom says, “Watch your language!” When facing punishment, my goal was never to show fear. Ever. When I was five, I remember inadvertently voicing a “Goddamnit” during a spanking. Mom yanked me into the bathroom; I still remember the thick bar of Ivory soap in my mouth and its sharp taste.
The night of the New Year’s Eve party, inside my alcohol-soaked seventeen-year-old brain, I feel a blossoming revelation: my mother can’t touch me. And I repeat, “Goddamn this fucking shit.”
Was your mom an alcoholic?
She liked her cocktails and wine, but I never considered her an alcoholic. Why is that your first question? Didn’t you notice that core of rebellion? I was blackout-drunk for the first time in my life and what penetrated my chemical soup was glee. My essential revelation: being drunk afforded me boundless impunity. As a fledgling alcoholic, I couldn’t know the treachery of that false insight.
I was more interested in that hijacked kiss, in the absent boyfriend. How do sex and rebellion interweave for you?
Interweave? Would you like to retract that verb before it does any more damage?
How would you phrase the question?
Why do I still feel shame when I see myself on that floor, soaked in champagne and unable to assent or resist?
When I finished throwing up, Mom helped me into my bedroom and went back to her party. I remember lying on my twin bed with my foot on the floor, hoping that grounding myself would stop the spinning. It did not. I tried to put my hands inside my skull to wrest the cactus-sharp vertigo from my brain. My drunken mantra: “Please, God, please kill me now, and I’ll never do this again.”
Did you really say that?
Yes, I did. At least, that’s what I remember. I’m old enough to know that we tell our stories differently at different times and that certain stories ossify. Maybe this story is just dried-out bone.
Do you really think that?
Maybe not. The feelings are honest, the best my memory can do. Anyway, all origin stories begin way before the story starts.
Last Blackout (I think): Fall, Mid-1980s, West Berlin
My friend Gisela invites me to a family dinner, northern-German style—sausage, mashed potatoes, spinach purée, beer, and schnapps. We talk popular culture and politics. That night, I believe I am particularly eloquent in this foreign language.
After dinner, Gisela and I head to a favorite club, Far Out, run by followers of Bhagwan Rajneesh. The “Buggies” wear orange pajama-like outfits and perform meditative dances at intervals. After they finish, Gisela and I leave our drinks and go dance. When we return, three women have usurped our space. I ask them to leave. They refuse. I ask them again. They squirm down into their seats. I harangue them in German: “No wonder everyone hated Germans after the war. You’re assholes.” The women shrink back but do not move.
Gisela and I thread through the crowd. Eventually, I find someone to hook up with. He’s short, speaks accented German. A flash of memory: I’m driving his car down Kurfürstendamm, West Berlin’s Fifth Avenue. I don’t remember anything else until the next morning.
I wake up with my underwear and shirt still on but no pants. I don’t know where I am. I don’t know who I spent the night with. I don’t think we had sex. He told me his name, but I can’t recall it. He is an international student studying economics. I am in a garret apartment—a small window lets in sunshine at a slant.
How do you feel about this story?
How would you feel if you woke up unsure whether or not you’d had sex with a stranger?
So, your behavior only intensified between that first blackout and this last one.
Excuse me? You can’t equate a seventeen-year-old who is too drunk to say “yes” or “no” to an invasive tongue in her mouth to a thirty-year-old self who sets out to pick someone up at a club. It’s not like this was my first rodeo. I knew what I was getting into.
Still, I feel sad for that young woman in the Berlin bar.
I don’t. She was fierce. She adventured in ways I’ll never risk again.
Was that younger self naturally fierce or did alcohol give her courage?
I ride home on the U-Bahn. I sit with my feet planted on the subway floor, my hands gripping a pole. With every swing of the car, I will myself not to throw up. Chained by my concentration on not puking, I make it to my stop. Once inside my apartment, I celebrate: I had not thrown up in a German subway. I spend the rest of the day stretched out on the sofa bed, grateful I had a bag of oranges. I slept, ate oranges, and did not think about quitting drinking.
Why didn’t you think about quitting drinking?
I was too busy being proud of myself for not throwing up.
That sounds flippant. What are you avoiding?
Bottoming out is not a pretty landscape. It’s not a country I want to revisit.
Thirty-two years sober, and I read my journals from Berlin. I expect to find incoherence. Shaky lines. Wildly vacillating handwriting. But I find my thirty-year-old self thinking carefully about race and nationality, war and memory, novels and language.
Journal Entry: Spring, Mid-1980s, West Berlin
Why do you drink? Because it feels good.
Why does it feel good? Makes me forget.
What do you forget? My hunger and theirs.
Spit in the wind, cancer, war, and nuclear bombs.
Why do you drink? To ease the pain.
What pain? The pain of living in this world.
The left cheek of a Vietnamese child burned away by napalm.
A six-year-old boy from El Salvador who holds a machine gun.
Why do you drink? Because it’s easier.
What’s easier? Living. Suits my laziness.
No need to get up about anything.
Blurred, soft edges. Everything’s fine. Till the next one.
Why do you drink? Because it makes me think I was born for a reason.
Did you write that while you were drunk?
It’s called “Alcoholic’s Lines,” isn’t it?
I could write the same poem today without the alcohol.
The poem indicates you drank because of the unendurable conditions of life. But you don’t drink anymore. How could you write the same poem?
I meant that consciousness of war, violence, and poverty offers reason enough to drink. These days, I often wake up in a fog of apocalyptic breathing. It coalesces into an anxiety-fear brew before I’ve even made coffee. Maybe my apocalyptic breathing is also a function of age, as my body operates with diminishing resources: not enough of the right hormones to keep my mood from tanking, not enough acid to digest the right nutrients, not enough collagen to keep my joints from cracking. The skin on my face loses elasticity while the skin on my heart becomes less and less thick. But that’s a good thing, right? A less thick-skinned heart?
You drank because of the unbearable difficulty of being. But it also sounds as if your bottoming out could have been worse.
Nice play on that Kundera title. Still, I’d say that wanting to kill myself qualifies as an adequate low point.
But you didn’t have the DTs. You didn’t crash a car.
When I returned to teaching, I had the shakes when I wrote on the board. That freaked me out. And also, I’m not playing Twenty Ways to Be an Alcoholic. Does it really matter if an alcoholic is high-bottom, low-bottom, or somewhere in-between? A drunk is a drunk.
The eighth and ninth AA steps ask us to list those we have harmed and make amends to them. These steps are shame-erasers. I still have globules of shame draping my soul like frayed strings of Christmas tree lights: The time I borrowed a friend’s car and drove home from the bar in a blackout. All the times I don’t remember morning-after names or faces. The times I’ve slept with one man while involved with another, who was at home, in our bedroom, perhaps oblivious. Perhaps not. The two times I’ve had to move out of apartments quickly because I picked up a stalker or became involved with violent partners. All the times I’ve gotten belligerent with strangers and loved ones.
This is a powerful paragraph.
I wanted to be somebody else when I drank, and I was somebody else. I was not the awkward geek, who never attracted boys.
I am struck again by this thread of looking for love in all the wrong places.
Now who’s relying on clichés?
Women’s AA Meeting: Fall, 2018, Tucson
At a women’s AA meeting, a speaker talks about picking up men at bars. She mentions that when she drinks, her acne disappears, and she looks like the women in magazines. Our stories are interchangeable.
At the same meeting, woman after woman speaks about struggling with trauma after the headlines on Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony at the Kavanaugh hearing. Nobody says the words “Republican” or “Democrat,” or even “Kavanaugh.” But each woman speaks with a raw voice until the room is filled with a chorus of wounds we struggle not to drink over. One woman focuses not on the sexual abuse, but on Kavanaugh’s denial of alcoholism.
“You were such a fun drunk,” an old boyfriend tells me. My friends didn’t see me at the end. They didn’t know about the drunken suicidal phone calls, the dangerous sexual encounters, the self-hate, the blackouts.
Alcoholism waits to collect its many chits. I know this in my core: if I drink again, I’ll crash my car and kill an innocent bystander; I’ll experience a violent sexual encounter; I’ll commit suicide, or lose my mind. I came so close.
Do you think you’d have gotten sober sooner if you’d gotten a DUI?
Why are you fixating on DUIs? I’ve just talked about suicide, murder, rape, and insanity. Yes, DUIs land people in front of judges and perhaps in rehab or jail, where they might get sober. But if you see DUIs as badges or passes into AA, you’re missing the sixty-five-year-old widow wearing pearls and sipping bourbon next to her cat all day, and the high-functioning entrepreneur who moves just fast enough to avoid looking in the mirror, and the fifteen-year-old quarterback sneaking moonshine, and the single mom hiding bottles in their closets. Alcoholics are as quiet and desperate as we are rowdy and loud.
Getting Help: Spring, Mid-1980s, Austin
I come back from Berlin and find out a relative came close to suicide and my best friend is in therapy for long-term incest abuse in her adolescence. I keep drinking. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I make an appointment with a university counselor. She is blind. Perhaps her lack of physical sight allows me to start crying after her first question. Between sobs, I tell her about my relative, my best friend, and then I say, “I think I drink too much, and I really want to quit smoking.” I emphasize the smoking.
The counselor says, “You need to address your drinking before I can see you in therapy.”
Eventually, I find another therapist, and she asks me if I can cut down. Sure, I can do that. I keep a notebook. Monday: one beer. Tuesday: one beer. Wednesday: three margaritas. Thursday: one six-pack and three margaritas.
Then, I decide I have to stop drinking entirely if I’m ever going to finish my dissertation. I take it one month at a time. The first month, I am in topsy-turvy world. Without alcohol, I am hyperaware of every billboard advertising beer, every bar I walk past, every party I don’t attend. At the end of each month, I recommit to another month. I manage ten months not drinking.
My boyfriend, a heavy drinker, cancels our plans to get together one night and I decide I’m going to pierce my right ear to make a third hole. I find my roommate’s brandy to sterilize my ear. Before I push the earring through, I decide to drink the brandy because piercing my ear is going to hurt. Just like that—with no space between the idea and the act—I jettison ten months of abstinence.
My therapist suggests a sponsor. I’ve been trying AA on my own, but I turn back at the slightest obstacle: road construction, a song on the radio, menacing clouds. Sometimes, I go to an AA meeting and buy a six-pack on my way home. The meetings are weird. Signs plastered on the walls display messages like “Think,” “KISS—Keep It Simple, Stupid,” and “Let Go, and Let God.” Something called the Twelve Steps hangs in front of the room. Nothing makes sense.
I make an appointment to meet a prospective sponsor after the next Sunday women’s meeting. We talk outside the clubhouse, a term that makes me think of the Mickey Mouse television show.
The woman I’m talking with is ten years older than me and tells me that if I want to get sober, I have to put sobriety before family, relationships, and my dissertation. I nod, but think, I can put sobriety before my family and my relationship, but this woman has clearly never written a dissertation. Still, I agree. She tells me to go buy the Big Book and the Twelve and Twelve, the two textbooks of AA.
That night, I read the Big Book cover to cover. I can relate to some of what I read, but I have one pervasive question—how does anyone get sober when this thing is so badly written?
The next day is Memorial Day. My boyfriend and I have just moved in together, and he asks a friend to help him paint the apartment. They hang out all day and I’m pissed about being ignored, so I get revenge-drunk. I realize I have a problem: I drink even when I don’t want to. No matter how hard I try not to drink, I still drink. I can’t quit drinking alone. I’ve tried. And tried. I make an appointment to meet the sponsor again after the next meeting.
Journal Entry: Two Months Before My Final Drink, mid-1980s, Austin
Last Sunday, I went to the Benson collection and then was twenty minutes late for AA. I’m glad I made myself go. I didn’t say anything but found myself close to tears several times. We were talking about being judgmental. One woman described how she judged everyone and pleaded for help in finding a way not to. I find the care given in these meetings fascinating. Each woman’s experience at first seemed completely disjointed from the previous speaker’s, but everyone wove back to the topic of judgment. No one had a quick and easy answer, but by the end of the meeting, we’ve all learned from our circular sharing.
These women’s faces blend in with others on the street. They don’t look like alcoholics. They look like regular women. Behind every familiar, taken-for-granted face lie struggle, agony, and triumph. Everyone has so much pain. Dealing with our pain together—that’s what meetings offer.
I’m surprised at how mundane the meetings seem. I expected more drama.
Why keep returning to stereotypes? Recovery is about living sober, and just as life can be boring, so too can recovery seem mundane. But sobriety also wakes you up to wonder. I remember a meeting, early in recovery, when I felt two emotions at the same time. Acknowledging and naming one feeling was challenging enough, but two feelings at once? I almost fell off my seat. Then, I smiled—because I didn’t explode, and I didn’t take a drink.
Whenever I move, I bring with me an empty gin bottle and cocktail onion glass from my grandmother. When Grandma died, I was only a few months sober. After the funeral, I claimed the bottle and glass and asked my mother to wash out the remaining half-inch of gin. When Grandma asked her granddaughters to fetch her “supplies” or her “medicine,” we went to her stash in the cupboard near the sink. Sitting in her recliner in the living room, Grandma always had a glass of gin on the TV tray table next to her. When I was a girl, I thought Grandma was smart to buy cocktail onions in a glass she could use later for her gin. I remember the onions floating in clear liquid—tiny, pupil-less eyeballs.
Your mom wasn’t an alcoholic, but her mother was.
I’ve placed the bottle and glass near my altar, wherever I’ve lived, to remind me of who I am.
Then, with twenty-seven years of sobriety behind me, I move across country to help my sisters with our mom, who is showing signs of dementia. In my radical purging, I decide I no longer need the bottle and the glass. I design a ritual and ask friends to film me throwing the bottle and the cocktail glass into a dumpster at the local recycling center. I had hoped for a brilliant shattering, but neither bottle nor glass breaks. What message was I to reap from their remaining whole?
Have you answered that question?
Do you mean, have I figured out if I’m more than a recovering alcoholic?
I think my life divides in two: before I got sober and after I got sober. But this division is both too neat and illusory. When I got sober, I was not struck relationship-competent or self-confident. I was stuck with my self. The difference is sobriety, my ticket to the ride of one-days-at-a-time. Finding joy in the now, even as death and difficulty mark the days, is possible, a choice, and a practice. I can look into the sun. I can look at the ground and heart-melt over the delicate orange mallow growing out of rocks. If I don’t drink today, I have a chance at wonder.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers free, confidential crisis counseling twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. You don’t have to be suicidal to call (1-800-273-8255). The Lifeline also offers services for people who are deaf or hard of hearing (1-800-799-4889) and people who speak Spanish (en español: 1-888-628-9454). People who are transgender can also call the Trans Lifeline (U.S.: 877-565-8860; Canada: 877-330-6366). If you’re a journalist reporting on suicide, suicide prevention, or mental health and mental illness, you can find guides and resources to help you in your work at ReportingOnSuicide.org. This is a personal essay and represents the thoughts and feelings of its author first and foremost. Overall, we have tried to adhere to many of the suggestions at ReportingOnSuicide.org while editing this essay; however, we have also respected the author’s wish to communicate what it’s like to live with suicidal ideation to those who don’t experience it, which means we’ve included some material that might not be appropriate in a traditionally reported journalistic piece. – Ed.
Rumpus original art by Emily Jean Alexander.
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.