I got sober in Black-Eyed Susan season. Those flowers were everywhere that summer. I hold onto images of them as I hold onto this daily chance I have to be alive and heal. Because the way I lived before is a sad, exhausting, hopeless way to live and to die. I have watched it happen, and it is ugly and devastating, and I still often can't believe that three years ago I got just enough grace to help me save myself. I think of it as a crack of light through a door or a window; one-day things were dark, and then they changed. The flowers have marked that before and after for me. They were what gave me the most hope at first. They still are some days.
I don't understand how or why it happened. One minute I was standing in the rain in the dark on an ill-advised late night walk to a bar when it occurred to me for the first time that I didn't have to live this way. This was a quiet, revolutionary, and totally uncomfortable thought because I believed I had to live that way. I didn't think I could ever stop drinking, and I was afraid of all of it, and of everything. What would I do without alcohol? It was killing me, but I needed it, and I thought this would play out until I stopped breathing. I don’t have a better definition of desperation in my lived experience than to be dependent on the thing that would have you dead.
I bought the beer anyway, and went home and drank it. Luckily, the tiny thought that I could change returned the next day in a bathroom stall at work where I was stuck in panic and physical withdrawal. That was when I got a kick in the ass from a power I call Ozzy-because I grabbed onto him as a clean heavy metal security blanket at 19 days of sobriety when I needed something to talk to, and he has stuck in my head the whole way, and I asked for help. Words had started to get very fuzzy for me at that point, both retrieving them from my brain and stringing them together, which for a lifelong storyteller was a particularly terrifying bottom.
I reached out to a sober person across the country on Google Chat who helped save my life. Should I stop drinking? Can I even do that? How do you do that? And will I write again if I do? Never mind that I hadn't been writing for months, and wasn't going to be able to do anything at all soon because I'd be dead, but would I write again? I had no idea how to ask for help much less receive it, especially with a process that I fully believed was doomed to fail.
Yes. She said yes to whatever she needed to; I know that now. She said that I had to take care of myself, so could I try to start to do that? Whatever she said gave me the courage to message one more person to help me on the ground in my town, an old, dear friend who took me to a gathering of people with a common problem. They listened and talked to me while I began the process of living without alcohol. A process that I’m very lucky hasn’t stopped yet.
There is a line in a Tracy Chapman song called "Change": "When everything you think you know makes your life unbearable, would you change?" I put it on the playlist I made during my first 90 days of sobriety, a time of the beginnings of neural rewiring that for me required a lot of music. Often the answer to Tracy's question is no, I think, for humans. But when something twists and it becomes a yes out of nowhere the outcomes can be a real trip way beyond where any drink can take you. At least that is how it has been for me.
I speak about my experience because the stakes are too high and the reality too grim for so many people who suffer from the disease of alcoholism. The National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse has found that 88,000 people are estimated to die from alcoholism each year, and 2.5 million with alcoholism as a contributing factor. I'm sure these reported numbers are low because so few of us feel safe talking about it. So many of us go it alone, never tell, try to protect ourselves, and die without ever knowing there is a different, better way. The first doctor who handed me a pamphlet and dared to suggest that I not continue to drink myself to death was a superhero because he didn't care if he angered me, and neither did he laugh off my situation or think I was beyond help or a bad person. He saw a problem after knowing me for five minutes that I wasn't able to articulate, except with every action I took and every word I said. When I sobered up months later, I remembered that he tried. Just because we don't appear to be listening in the moment doesn't mean it's not making a dent.
Alcohol is everywhere and nowhere. These numbers that have been counted up--88,000 potentially destroyed lives, multiplied by the many thousands more in families that are destroyed in myriad ways from addiction--would be more surprising if it weren't for how intricately and effectively alcohol is woven into our cultures and our commerce. And what a great reputation it has as a facilitator of everything from tolerating the passage of time (I LOVED your birthday! And mine! Whoooo!) to calming nerves that it ultimately destroys to making everything just a little more fun and tolerable, like, say, opening my email or living another day. Let's be real.
Yet, it is still much more precarious to identify yourself openly as a person who cannot tolerate alcohol in your body than it is to stumble around a bar or a backyard or your living room wasted. One revolution can be hashtagged with hearts and martini glass emojis, and one really shouldn't be discussed at all. It's so backwards. And besides public awareness, I speak so that if anyone listening is struggling as I was, and there is any chance I can help, I want to. I know well the thought of not being able to stop doing something that is killing you. I also had the experience of my mind and heart suddenly changing, because I was afraid for my life, and when that happened, people were there for me to help me save it. I cannot ever pay that forward enough, but I can do what I can do. Someone wants you to be okay, even if she doesn't know who you are yet, because she has been where you are, and knows you can get out, knows you can live, and even live well. It's the best thing I've had the chance to learn in three years, so I like to throw it out there from time to time.
I am so grateful today that the word sounds inadequate, but it's still the best one I have. After years of bouncing from one crisis to another, I am trying to live intentionally and with a sense of purpose beyond myself. I am rebuilding my career, learning how to build real relationships, and how to live with some measure of peace and contentment. I try to live in solutions rather than problems today and to have a sense of humor about myself that I always lacked. Even on my most challenging days, I don't wake up with the terror I experienced every day for so long before I even got out of bed. My blood pressure is normal. I sleep, instead of passing out. I don’t have to worry about my fitness to drive, to show up at social events, or to be around anyone, anywhere, at any time of day. I have not had a hangover in three years. I have not lost a cell phone, a drivers license, or my self-respect. I do not have to check my sent emails or social media accounts or text messages for any bad decisions I may have made the night before. Whatever choices I make, good or bad, are conscious and aware.
The best part is that my life is full of real generosity, kindness, truth, and love from so many people-and I can even feel it all, most of the time. Things have gotten better while they have often looked messier in the process. In sobriety, I have learned to sit in discomfort without numbing my feelings, and to ask for help. The process of recovery that saved my life and that I practice today aims for a new freedom and happiness in sobriety, and although I have a long way to go, my eyes are open to how this is happening already. My biggest wish is that sharing my experience can help another person who is suffering like I did feel that she is not alone and that there is hope for better - hope that her life can be saved, and she can truly live it, not just endure or survive it. I have that much to offer. Today I remain hopeful. Today I am free.