Voices on Addiction: Want to Believe


I took a breath, tugged one last time at my bathing suit, and jumped. The water was icy, an electrical shock prodding my body. All my nerve endings lit up simultaneously, my neural pathways glowed. I could not make my lungs take in a breath, even for a few seconds after my head popped up above the surface. The hangover throbbing in my head was zapped free and I felt awake, alive, amazed.

Fully immersed in water. Submerged. Purified. A baptism. It felt as if someone was trying to shake me to wake up. Pay attention.

I had not noticed my body in this way for years. I had not felt it. I’d been ignoring it, doing whatever I could to avoid listening to what it had to say. To avoid feeling anything at all.

Just the night before, my new husband Pete and I had downed too many Medallas at a dive bar in San Juan, where we were on a honeymoon trip to the Dreamcatcher, “Puerto Rico’s only vegetarian bed and breakfast.” We’d arranged through the hotel for our own personal rainforest tour guide, Mateo, who was in his early twenties, with a big smile and twinkling brown eyes. On our drive, he told us he was studying the female body and how it relates to nature. Menstrual cycles and moon cycles and all that. I wondered if this was a euphemism for sleeping around. 

Mateo told us he grew up in and around the El Yunque rainforest, where we were heading that day. El Yunque had long been regarded as a sacred place, he explained. Indigenous Taino people believed the highest peak of the rugged Luquillo Mountains, constantly hugged with a ring of thick white clouds, was the throne for their god Yokahu. Yokahu, the god of light and life, was the Taino’s chief god, making El Yunque the Caribbean equivalent of Mount Olympus. Native Puerto Ricans still believe the rainforest protects the rest of the island by absorbing the full impact of the hurricanes that roar through each year.

Stale beer leaked from our pores as we rode in the backseat of Mateo’s beat-up Jeep, hot in the morning sun. From the parking lot, we peered over the rainforest, thick with giant tropical tree ferns and palm trees out to the glittering Caribbean Sea. 

Once we were finally in the forest, where sunlight struggled to peek through the curtain of ferns and palm leaves, the temperature dropped ten degrees. We passed other tour groups, larger crowds with seniors and small children. Those groups stuck to the well-traveled paths, but Mateo showed us shortcuts, crossing streams by stepping on seesawing rocks and fallen trees. He identified the trees as we passed, rosewood and mahogany, many of their trunks and branches wrapped tightly with hanging vines. He gently lifted mossy rocks to reveal entire ecosystems living beneath. My head still pounding, I tried to pay attention as he pointed out flowers and leaves believed to have healing powers.

When we reached our destination, La Mina Falls, a waterfall spilling over craggy rock walls to create a natural swimming hole, I peeled off my shorts and Mateo offered to hold them. 

“You’re not coming in?”

He shook his head and smiled. “I have experienced this already.”

Pete eased his body into the clear, swirling water and winced at the icy temperature. I knew if I dipped a toe in, I’d chicken out altogether, so I sucked in my breath and leaped into the water, landing in an ungraceful cannonball. 

They say it rains four times a day in El Yunque, so it was no surprise when the rain began to fall soon after our dip in the natural spring. The rain started out soft, sending up a magical mist over the trails. The drops fell harder and harder until suddenly we were walking in a heavy downpour that never let up.

On the plane on the way home from Puerto Rico, Pete asked what was my favorite part of the trip. The rainforest, I said, and he was surprised. 

“Really? It rained the whole time! We got soaked. Not dinner at Jose Enrique? Not Old San Juan?” he said. In Old San Juan, we’d pounded Medallas and downed shots of Cutty Sark. “What was it about the rainforest?”

I stared out over the clouds as I pondered his question. 

I’ve never felt moved in a church, and I’ve been in a lot of them. People used to pick up on my lostness, I think, and invite me to their churches. I’ve been to Catholic churches, Lutheran churches, Episcopalian churches, United Methodist churches. Every once in a while, during Christmas Eve mass, I felt a little flutter when we sang carols, but I think only because the songs reminded me of my grandma. 

In the rainforest, under a cathedral of trees, I felt something. A stirring. How could I explain it, though, to my husband who believed me to be as skeptical about religion as he was? To the man I’d just married in a warehouse rather than a church, with whom I’d just spent weeks laboring over wedding vows that made no mention of the word God? 


Four months later, on the first day I didn’t drink, I didn’t tell anyone, not even my husband, I’d stopped. A full twenty-four hours passed before I delivered the news to Pete, the man I met while day drinking, the man I spent more nights than not sitting next to on a barstool. I thought he would try to fight me on it. That he’d say, no, you’re not that bad! We’ll just start trying to take it easy. 

 But instead, he said, yes, I think that’s a good idea. 

I thought maybe he misunderstood. “I mean stop drinking altogether, like for good. Forever.”  

He nodded. He understood. 

It wasn’t until several months into sobriety that I went to my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I wasn’t looking for help to stop drinking—that part had come pretty easily after I gave into the voice in my head telling me I had to stop. Rather, I had this vague notion I needed to find community, and the only sober community I knew of was AA. I wanted to find more of the one thing so far keeping me sober. Stories. I’d been reading books, all the books, every memoir I could find with drinking as the primary obstacle.

In theory, I loved the idea of AA, this secret society of meetings that are always going on everywhere where you gather with like-minded people, your people—the otherwise doting mothers who made questionable decisions after their second drink, the women who could not move beyond the shame of being drunk moms—and spill your heart out in private. How beautiful is that?

I picked my first AA meeting from the long, long list of possibilities for one reason: the location was not a church basement. Like hell was anyone going to assume I got sober because I’d found God. And so it took a while to figure out why, sitting there in a folding chair next to a young mother bouncing her infant son on her knee on one side and a bespectacled bald man on the other, I felt like I was going to throw up. I didn’t fully understand the AA lingo then and did not realize there were different types of meetings—open meetings and closed meetings, women’s only meetings, Big Book study meetings. In choosing a meeting in an office park on the far side of town, during the workday, to avoid running into anyone I knew, I’d inadvertently chosen what’s known as a step meeting. The full hour is dedicated to an in-depth discussion of one of the 12 steps. In this case, Step Six: “We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”

The source of my discomfort did not click until the moment the collection plate began to circulate. No one explained why they were collecting money, though in hindsight I realize it was probably to pay for the black coffee everyone was sipping out of Styrofoam cups, the shakers of powdered creamer, the day-old pastries caked in frosting on the counter. But when that plate landed in my lap and I looked up at the speaker clearing her throat at the podium, flipping through Bill W’s Big Book to find her reading, my breath caught. Who knows what she actually said to lead into her recitation, but I flashed back to my childhood churchgoing days. Instead of the young mother and the bald man, around me all I could see were the parishioners in the pews at the Catholic church I grew up attending on Sundays before we learned about my uncle and the priest and my mother declared she’d never step foot inside another Catholic church. All I could see were the weary men and women and fidgety children bathed in the sultry reds and yellows streaming through the stained-glass depiction of the red flames of hell opposite the window with golden waves of heaven crashing around the holy Eucharist, struggling to pay attention to the Lord’s Word, trying to make sense of the priest’s attempt to make a centuries-old text relevant to our modern world.

In the AA meeting, two more speakers came to the podium to read from the Big Book, reciting two more sections about the Sixth Step, before the de facto leader of this particular gathering delivered his homily, explaining what, in his mind, step six means and encompasses. I had been looking forward to the part where people shared their stories, but by the time we finished the lengthy readings, there wasn’t much time for anyone else to speak.

As the clock ticked close to one, the bald man next to me grabbed my hand in his clammy one and the whole group recited not the Serenity Prayer I had been expecting but the Lord’s Prayer. I mouthed the words I knew by heart, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name . . . ” the same way I used to in my early twenties when my parents dragged me to the new Southern Baptist congregation they’d joined. I sensed somehow this group, like that one, wouldn’t take fondly to outsiders.

I ran out of the meeting as fast as I could, gasping for air. 


Back in my drinking days, I’d pull out one of my least favorite stories at the bar for guaranteed laughs. My drinking buddies would ask for it by name: Tell the Rapture Shelf story!

It went something like this.

Pete and I were home visiting my parents and went downstairs to grab beers from the basement fridge. When we came back up, Mom asked me, trying to act casual, “Did you notice the new shelves down there?”

I had noticed them, sort of, the industrial metal shelving units weighed down with Campbell’s soup, canned vegetables, shelf-stable Dinty Moore meals.  

“Yeah, they look great,” I said, popping the cap off my beer. “Lots more storage space.”

“We stocked up on a bunch of food,” she continued. “Soup, beans—anything in cans, really.”

I nodded, still not really getting it.

“Pastor Tim has been talking a lot about the end times. You know. The second coming. The priests never told us about it at the Catholic church.” She paused here, trying to decide how to word the next part. “We just want you to know, all that food is here. It’s all yours, for you, and your family, and your brother, too. If you ever need to come down here to the house, you’ll know it’s here.”

I looked at my mother in her Coldwater Creek button-up blouse, her dyed blond hair carefully hair sprayed back from her face, sipping on her Coors Light. Dad, in a gray t-shirt and jeans, dipped a Tostito into the bowl of salsa in front of him and nodded, his face grave.

Next to me, Pete opened his mouth and I elbowed him in the rib.

He let it drop but brought it back up the second we got in the car to head home.

“Oh my god. Your parents. And the shelf.”

“I know.”

“So basically they’re saying they’re planning for the Rapture, right?”

“I guess—I mean, they talk about the end times all the time now. I just try to ignore it.”

“And the food is for us. And your brother.”

I stared at him.

“After your parents are raptured up, right? The true believers? We’ll be the ones left behind.”

My parents weren’t stocking up on canned corn we’d all eat together after the apocalypse but food we—my gay brother and my own heathen, non-churchgoing family—would eat on our own.

And they hadn’t even thought to ask what we might want to eat at the end of the world.

At this point in the story, whoever I was telling it to would usually burst out with something like, “Your parents built you a Rapture Shelf!”

And we would all cackle.

I joked about it, but I’d leave out the way I could see myself through my mother’s eyes that day, how quickly her message morphed from you won’t be raptured to you are going to hell to you are a terrible person.


I did not grow up like this. My parents were raised Catholic and raised us Catholic, but in the kind of way where we’d go to church every week for a stretch of Sundays, and then for a few years we’d go only on Christmas and Easter. It wasn’t until after I left for college that they started their spiritual walkabout, trying on a variety of denominations before landing in their Southern Baptist congregation.

In a lot of ways my parents were not what you think of when you think of evangelicals—they were card-playing, gambling, beer-drinking, occasionally foul-mouthed. Still, I always felt distant from the Southern Baptist version of my mom and dad, these people who looked just like my parents and mostly acted like them but sometimes sounded like complete strangers.

I grew up sneaking my dad’s old sci-fi books off the bookshelf, Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. When I was in high school, Mom dragged me to a psychic convention at the Cincinnati expo center. I grew up with parents who were believers, yes, but with a healthy distrust of the institutions of religion. They used to be curious. Searching. Open.

I first learned about the Evangelical wet dream version of the Rapture around the same time my parents did, as a young newspaper reporter working in Georgia, sent out to write about the local church’s “Hell House,” a haunted house attraction doubling as one interpretation of Revelation. Those scenes all came rushing back in an instant, the lustful, leering homosexuals, the demons in masks, and the down-and-out addicts in the flashing red light “flames.”

Was that what my parents thought of me? Was that what I was to them?


It’s the certainty that gets to me. My parents’ newfound insistence that they have some sort of insider knowledge of the one true truth. I can’t stand their certainty, but I can’t help but wish I could speak to my own uncertainty as passionately. 

Once, in an effort to quantify my beliefs, to figure out what, exactly, it is I do believe, I took an online quiz, The Belief-O-Matic. The quiz promised, “Answer twenty questions about your concept of God, the afterlife, human nature, and more, and Belief-O-Matic will tell you what religion (if any) you practice…or ought to consider practicing.”

I tried to pick the answers closest to what I actually believed rather than the answers I knew would get the result I wanted. The result that felt most right was secular humanism, which, let’s face it, isn’t technically a religion and doesn’t take into account all the things I want to believe.

The things I want to believe, the things that give me that same exhilarating zap I felt in the rainforest, come from a range of different religions and traditions. I like the Buddhists’ reverence for the now, the Hindus’ belief in reincarnation, the Pagans’ worship of nature and the seasons, the Catholics’ notion of guardian angels. I like the concept of Buddha nature, that every human is born good, pure, and loving, and we can return to that loving self whenever we decide to. I find my reluctant stumble toward spirituality takes on the same patched-together appearance of my recovery. 

I didn’t go back to another AA meeting for three years. The next time, I really wanted it to stick. I’d met a new friend who invited me to her all-women AA meeting, which she promised was going to be better than the step meeting I’d tried the first time. The problem was, this one was actually in a church basement, just like you always hear about, and while a few things were different—like we all sat in a circle around one long table and everyone got to share a bit of their story each meeting—the women’s meeting still had the collection plate and the readings from the Big Book and all the God talk. When you try to explain AA is too religious, friends of Bill W will tell you it doesn’t have to be. They’ll tell you your higher power doesn’t have to be God. You can substitute in anything, anyone, any word you feel like. Nature. Goddess. Higher self. The thing is when you’re in a meeting all you hear is God, God, God.

I tried to tell myself it didn’t matter, but I couldn’t understand why God had to be part of all this. In the recovery world, there’s Alcoholics Anonymous and then there’s everything else, just like in the U.S. it’s the Christians who believe it’s their one truth that will get you through the pearly gates and then there are all those poor unfortunate souls who will be left behind. Who are you, they say, to go against something that’s worked for people for ages? 

While I still don’t have much of a sober circle in my own neighborhood, I’ve slowly but surely built a community anyway, finding my people on private Facebook groups and in blog posts and message boards and Instagram comments, and Zoom. I’m drawn to people who’ve gone down this path before me. Among them, I’ve found leaders whose teachings appeal to me. You may have done bad things, they say, but you are not a bad person. You got lost, they say, but now you are home. They tell me to look around at all the angels who helped me along the way. 

This is stuff I would’ve rolled my eyes at before Puerto Rico. But quite unexpectedly, I start to tell myself stories about what I want to believe. 

I think about the two people who found me lying drunk on the ground the last night I got drunk when I tried to walk home after a gin-soaked bachelorette party turned blackout, the man and the woman who found me passed out in a grassy area between the bar and my house. How they called my husband to come pick me up and stayed with me until he arrived. I couldn’t move. I was so drunk I couldn’t feel my body. I had spent years drinking as much as I could to keep from feeling the unending onslaught of pain life had dealt up—a sick baby, an endless hospitalization, a divorce.

I remember how they appeared to me when I opened my eyes, two faceless heads floating above me, ringed in light, illuminated from behind by a streetlight. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they were guardian angels sent to protect me? Wouldn’t it be nice if they saved me on purpose? If I had a purpose? If there was some greater purpose to all this, something still left to do here, more stories to write, more people to help?

What about my husband? I usually say the first night I met Pete I was drunk, drinking all day at a concert where he was too. But he likes to remind me that’s not the first time we met—he remembers our first meeting quite vividly and I barely remember it. The first moment he saw me, more than a full year before the concert, was when I turned around a corner. I was still married to another man at the time and I was pushing a baby in a stroller, but all the same, he caught his breath and felt a tingle go up his spine.

He didn’t know, then, I would leave my husband within a year. He didn’t know the next time we met I would be a single mom. He didn’t know he would marry me and that I would stop drinking within the first year of our marriage. But at that moment something told him, pay attention.

This year will mark eight years of sobriety, and twelve years since we started dating. We’ve now been together sober longer than we were together drinking. 

And what about myself? What about the small, still voice inside that firmly and clearly told me it was time to stop drinking? What about the me who saved my own life because she could see beyond the endless loop of blackouts and hangovers and knew there was something better out there, waiting for us?


One crisp morning, the sunlight shining through yellow leaves, the cicadas singing, as the day’s first cup of coffee electrified my brain (rather than simply extinguishing my hangover headache, as it had done for years), the thought crossed my mind: I feel awake. Like, not only my body but my mind and soul and spirit felt tingling, alive. And I had to laugh.

The 12th step in AA says this: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”

A spiritual awakening is exactly what I thought I was trying to avoid by staying away from AA and working the steps. But I wonder, now, if it’s even possible to avoid it.

After all, it is a radical notion to stop drinking alcohol in a society that deems it central to every gathering. To decide to feel all of life, the beautiful and the ugly. For me, it’s become an acknowledgment that maybe life is not much more than nerve endings exploding and a desire to be here for all of it.

A desire to feel, rather than a desire to numb.

I have settled on not knowing what will happen a year from now, or what will happen after we leave this life. I know I will not drink today; that is enough for now.


I still think sometimes about the Puerto Rican rainforest and Mateo. When the rain started pouring, I panicked. My glasses fogged up and water ran down them in rivulets. My instinct was to run, to get out as quickly as possible, but Mateo never sped up to escape the rain. He kept his slow, steady pace and simply stopped narrating our tour as the roar of the rain drowned out our voices. 

Eventually, I took my glasses off. I couldn’t see more than a foot in front of my face without them, but somehow it didn’t matter that I couldn’t see where I was going. Mateo navigated deftly through the thick foliage, turning this way and that, ascending steep stone staircases, lifting vines so they wouldn’t slap his face or mine. I didn’t need to see the full path stretching to its final destination, only the next step in front of me. 



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.

Rumpus Original art by Briana Finegan.

Shelley Mann Hite is a writer and editor living in Columbus, Ohio. Her essays have appeared in HuffPost, the Stonecrop Review, Motherwell, and Daily Drunk Mag. She’s currently working on a memoir about sobriety and motherhood. Find her on Instagram and Twitter @shelleymann or online at shelleymannhite.com. More from this author →