The past can be quite dangerous
but it's often willing to forgive
just bring back all the footage
of how you used to live
—"Your Old Haunts," Simon Joyner
About six months before I quit drinking, I began to keep a journal. It wasn't a journal filled with insight or longing--and it wasn't meant for publication. It was a record of every lousy thing I did to myself, and to others, in case I tried to back out of quitting when fall came. My subconscious must have come up with the idea for what I would, in rehab, call my "shame diary," because consciously I was unaware that I was preparing to stop. I bought the journal on a whim at Tiffany & Co., on one of those typical hangover-clouded Saturdays that binge drinkers spend blowing money in an attempt to make ourselves feel less like the losers we know we are.
5/30/00: "Judge Judy" showed up at the bar last night and put me on the defensive. Funny how he can get drunk and do shitty things all night yet I'm automatically "drunk and annoying" after one innocent drink. Sadly, while I was being drunk and annoying, I misplaced my cell phone. Fifth one since October.
6/25/00: Saw Murder City Devils and Screaming Trees at EMP celebration. Drank all night, went blackout, tried to get ** to come home with me, arm-wrestled lesbians for table, offended nearly everyone in the bar.
I'd been a blackout drunk since age 14, and by 36, only twice I had come close to dying as a result of binge drinking. The third time, the last time, was the closest. I knew when I woke up that I'd lived through the night only because it was time to begin living all over again. As I walked to work, reeking of booze and wobbly from the huge amount of painkillers still in my system, I realized that the only difference between me and the drunks I stepped over on the street was my ability to go on as normal when my life had fallen apart.
I remember thinking about the word "normal" that morning, letting it tumble over and over in my mind. I sat at my desk for a while, not quite convinced that I had actually lived through the night; maybe I was one of those ghosts who are damned to ceaselessly rewalk the last days of their lives. I'd mixed painkillers and booze for the better part of my adult life, and I knew without a doubt that I'd stepped over the line this time. I sat at my desk quaking, unable to write, and sure that finally, I'd given myself brain damage. Great... I'm a fucking moron now.
As soon as I'd finished piecing together the weekend and turning in my column, I called the number on the back of my insurance card and asked the folks at Group Health if there was anything they could do to help me.
Within a day I had gone through assessment and been told I could check into their inpatient facility either immediately or a week from now (if I needed to make arrangements). I chose a week from now, but not because I wanted to have a final binge, as most alcoholics do. I had quit drinking already, because I knew it was over. The next binge would be my last, of that I was sure. But I was worried about appearances. I was afraid of what people would say if I just up and disappeared for a few weeks and then came back all shiny and sober. Asshole.
Twelve years ago I got a DUI, so I'd been through AA before. Like most treatment programs, AA believes that in order to enter recovery, a drunk must first exit her former friendships and playgrounds. My entire support system was somehow involved in the Seattle music scene. We are a hard-drinking, reality-escaping community. After having made plans to check into an inpatient facility, I continued to hang out at my local bar as if nothing had changed, as if I hadn't almost lost my life, as if I hadn't made a firm decision to get help. I told one of my closet friends, a bartender, that I was soon to enter rehab, and asked her to pretend as if she were pouring vodka into my rocks glass of plain soda water. I didn't want my drinking pals to discover that I wasn't drinking.
The only person I knew who had successfully quit drinking was my grandma, who stopped once and for all three months before she died of pancreatic cancer and cirrhosis of the liver. She was 72 years old when she got the diagnosis, and she quit drinking almost immediately. I'll never know if she was hoping for a reprieve or if she was pleased that she had finally found the escape from living she'd always been searching for. I never got the chance to ask her, because at 17 I was already on my way. The night she died, all of her relatives surrounded her bed--except for me, of course. I was out getting wasted at a Halloween party. I told my family that I couldn't be there because I wanted to remember her alive. Perhaps if I'd watched her death I wouldn't have spent the next 20 years courting the same fate.
The only time I cried while I was in rehab was when the counselor told me I couldn't have a prescription for Antabuse. Antabuse causes a violent, Technicolor physical reaction when the user ingests alcohol, but the rehab folks think it's a crutch. They'd rather I quit my job and stay out of bars; I'd rather keep my job, learn how to be in public without having an anxiety attack (still working on that one), and take a pill that ensures I stay sober in the months it takes to learn a new kind of tolerance. I cried so hard I nearly threw up, but I got them to give me the prescription. At a restaurant two weeks after I got out of rehab I ordered tiramisu for dessert, forgetting it had booze in it. Technicolor.
The first three months of sobriety are like the first three years of your life. When you look back on it, images are cloudy; there are no concrete memories. I had sober sex for the first time in my life sometime during those first three months. I remember I was terrified and I remember it was just like high school and I remember it felt really, really good. I just don't remember when it was. I quit keeping a journal during rehab, so there's no way to check the date.
What I do remember about those first three months is the intensive outpatient treatment I underwent. I spent three hours a night sitting in a downtown classroom with a bunch of sorry drinkers who were, for the most part, there under court order. Following DUIs or drug busts they were getting touchy-feely in a group setting rather than doing jail time. When I talked about my job, some of them expressed extreme distress over my continuing to hang out in places that served alcohol. They said I should move out of my neighborhood, a place I've been living comfortably for five years now, because my block has two bars and two convenience stores, and several more of both are within very short walking distance. The first step in a 12-step program is admitting that you are powerless over alcohol. I couldn't imagine being so powerless that I couldn't even be in my own neighborhood, but I considered moving--for a minute or two. (Later I would learn it is a well-documented fact that moving and changing jobs can lead to depression, a major contributor to alcohol abuse and relapse, so it strikes me as odd that they were recommended to me.)
Once, when a fellow outpatient injured her back, she came to group high on muscle relaxants and was sent home. I'd been told in rehab that not only was I an alcoholic, but because I took pills when I drank I was also an addict. I assumed they were right, because I was so willing to accept whatever they told me. Six months into my sobriety I got an infected tooth and I was in a lot of pain. My dentist prescribed Vicodin until I could get in for a root canal--and I took two tablets every four hours instead of the one tablet prescribed. Maybe I was an addict. I panicked and tried to go without, but the pain was too much to bear. So fuck that "addict" noise and "an addict is an addict is an addict" paranoia. I was taking painkillers like a normal person, and what normal person doesn't take two instead of one?
Since then, I've been given wimpy tranquilizers to help with the anxiety of being in crowded rooms, and I take them exactly as prescribed--when I start to feel like I can't breathe--with no double-dosing. I haven't accidentally "dropped them down the toilet" or "lost" them so I had to get more, although I have been secretly furious when friends ask if they can share. (People who can still drink have some nerve mooching the only thing I have left that gives me some comfort.) I can't part with my pills, though, because having to run outside to dry heave on the sidewalk because you suddenly become aware that you are surrounded by hundreds of strangers is fucking embarrassing. It's called social anxiety, according to almost every counselor I've spoken to. It feels like social retardation.
Speaking of retardation, I've been looking back on reviews I've written over the years. I never wrote while I was drunk, because I never drank at work. However, I wrote nearly everything under the black cloud of an ugly hangover. That shit can make you mean. Rereading some particularly malicious reviews from those days makes me cringe. How could I have compared a local band to a steaming pile of shit? But re-listening to some of the CDs I panned during the worst of my drinking/blackout/hangover days gives me some comfort: I wasn't giving bad reviews to good bands--nor was I giving good reviews to bad bands. My opinions haven't changed, but the language I use to get my point across has.
As I was sitting on a barstool several months ago, a singer for a local band came up to me and remarked that I seemed so much nicer in print these days. What gives? I told him I didn't drink anymore. He said it showed. He also (quite indiscreetly) reminded me that I slept with him once. I reminded him that I must have done a lot of things I don't remember.
Sometimes that came back to bite me in the ass when it was time to do my job. The following is an excerpt from a live music preview I wrote in 1999:
"I'm thinking about Les Savy Fav. Particularly, how I can't remember a thing about them outside of the fact that they put on a great live show at the Breakroom a while back, and that the drummer from Girls Against Boys once told me they were his favorite band. He wore a Les Savy Fav T-shirt. It was yellow, and it was tight. It's frustrating, this inability to recall even a second of what the band sounds like. The only thing I can remember is what Les Savy Fav felt like. They were sassy and funny and sexy. They were cockeyed and a little damaged, but like many chipped treasures, more compelling because of it. I remember feeling surprised at how something so mischievously good had sneaked in the back way instead of strutting in on a crimson carpet of indie press yammering about how smart it was. I felt revived in that way that only seeing something from the beginning gives you. It's like love, only with someone new whom you've known forever."
Clearly, I was in love with a bottle of champagne that night--and the club's bartender often popped a cork the instant he saw me enter the front door. Here comes a regular.... I was as determined about seeing bands play live as I was about getting drunk, and I loved the Breakroom especially because it was the only rock club that served champagne by the bottle. One day I staggered up Capitol Hill to catch Les Savy Fav at the Breakroom and blacked out sometime during the show. The next morning, a co-worker who had also attended the show noticed my black eye and abraded face and exclaimed, "I told you to take a cab!" Apparently he'd seen me fall off my stool as I reached for the bottle, and suggested I take a cab home rather than walk. As best as I can figure it, I was halfway between the club and my house, walking home, when I hit the pavement. My hands were in my pockets so my face broke the fall.
I caught a lot of shit for writing about a show I didn't remember, although I still feel in my heart that I remembered the right parts. For me, music has always been about how it makes me feel, and what I come away with after the show is over. I don't play music myself, so I don't go to shows or listen to albums for educational gleanings. It's an emotional thing for me: Does the sound invigorate me or make me think? Did the band make me shake my head in amazement and want to go home and put my headphones on? One of the things I miss the most in sobriety is those nights when I would fall asleep on the floor of my apartment, headphones clamped to my head and an album I couldn't live without blaring in my ears. When you don't drink, it's just not the same. Things just aren't so urgent anymore.
I can still get lost in the music, and when I do, scenes from my past will sometimes flash in my mind, like clips from some scary movie that I can't look away from. I recently recalled a particular instance when the truth of how bad it was getting last summer began to sink in. I was listening to Richmond Fontaine's alcohol-soaked album Lost Son and I realized how much my life had come to resemble the one described in "A Girl in a House in Felony Flats." Right down to the bras and underwear and piles of unopened mail lying around; no bong, however, but there was a busted TV, just like in the song, the result of passing out cold and falling over the cord on the way down. It's weird how some drunks can hold their lives together just enough to make the important things work (job, money), but just barely. I would rarely let people into my apartment, because it was the only place that reflected how pathetic my life really was.
In January of 2001 I started keeping another journal. Soon it was filled with crazy dreams. Once again, my subconscious was talking to me.
2/21/01: This morning I had a dream about my old Dart. I was searching everywhere for a parking space to leave it. Even in the dream I was well aware of the fact that I no longer owned the car... why was I still parking it? I kept taking it out of a perfectly good garage in order to park it on the street. Of course this probably has to do with how I've been feeling insecure about where things are going with **, which would account for all the backwards and reverse imagery and pulling out of safety into the unknown where things don't fit....
Sobriety counselors will tell you not to get into a relationship before you're a year sober. But I drank so I wouldn't have to commit to anyone, not even to myself, so I decided to go ahead and get into a relationship four months after I quit drinking. For the most part it was the happiest time of my life. I rarely went to AA meetings, and I never thought about drinking. He was the last person to see me drunk. I have photographs of us together from that night, and I look nothing short of disgusting. He was also the first person to take a drink away from me and replace it with water. I'll always wonder if it was that one caring gesture that planted the seed in my subconscious--if I survived the night, I'd quit drinking. It was as if through the haze I finally saw a glimpse of what kind of happiness the future might hold if I could surround myself with people like him. On my six-month sobriety anniversary he gave me a bright red Radio Flyer wagon. My drinking friends down at the bar congratulated me and tearfully told me I gave them hope that someday they'd quit drinking and be happy too. They told me the tenderness ** and I showed each other made them believe that there are some people who are meant to be together.
The night I celebrated going eight months without a drink alone in my apartment, my boyfriend got shitfaced at a party and cheated on me. Ironically, he showed up at my back door--to confess--just as I finished watching Sandra Bullock get sober in 28 Days. Minutes later the neighbors were treated to the ridiculous sight of me trying to climb out the bathroom window while he tried to pull me back in. I was on my way to a bar to get drunk. I'd given up on me as easily as he had.
We stayed together, with a newfound--albeit doomed--respect for one another, and I went to a few AA meetings. And I sought out some other types of therapies: I saw a psychic and a shaman, I got my soul "retrieved" for $300, I read a bunch of books on Buddhism and meditation, and I read Oprah's hokey recommended books on spirit. I read these books bellied up to various bars, drinking pint glasses of soda water served to me by bartenders who were happy to see me sober.
Drinking dreams are terrifying. I have these dreams where I'm sitting somewhere happy as a lark, and all of a sudden I'm shitfaced and I keep asking people how I got that way. Did they see me drinking? Had I blacked out? Then when I wake up I'm all sweaty and guilt-ridden.
5/16/2001: I had another drinking dream last night. In it I decided to drink one bottle of red wine, then go directly to sleep so as not to feel the effects of being drunk and therefore not have to forfeit eight-and-a-half months of sobriety. The next day, this is still in my dream, ** asked me where I had been. I told him I cheated on him rather than admit that I had been drinking When I woke from the dream I told ** about it, leaving out the cheating part, but I don't think he really understands how scared the dream made me. I never know how much to tell him. I don't want him to think I'm always on the verge of drinking. How tiring that threat must be. Actually, I'm sick and tired of it myself.
Almost worse than the dreams are the memories. Blackouts do reveal themselves sometimes, and the realization of what happened during those lost hours sucks the wind right out of you. On occasion, I'd experienced a kind of half-blackout where I could hear myself telling lie after godawful ugly lie while behaving just atrociously, and all the while there was a trapped, muted voice inside that kept trying to rise above it all and scream STOP. People would run away hurt by something I said, but because I'd forgotten what I'd said the moment after I said it, I'd constantly be chasing after angry people, wondering what I'd done to make them run away.
The regular blackouts were just me acting happy and normal, if not a little bossy, and having no idea what the fuck I was doing. A friend once told me he snapped out of a blackout while he was having sex with some stranger in the front seat of her car parked in the driveway of the house he shared with his girlfriend. He'd only gone out for a beer with the boys, and he loved his girlfriend. The only thing worse than remembering you had sex with someone whom you find physically and mentally repulsive would have to be coming to while you were having sex. You feel raped even though you must have been willing to go along with it during the blackout.
Moments of clarity come much more frequently in sobriety. They hit at any time of the day and swell in your brain like a sunrise. One of the 12 Steps involves assessing what your addiction has cost you. In rehab, this assessment is taken literally. After figuring in the money blown on oceans of cocktails and champagne, DUI and court costs, wasted college tuition, emergency room charges and surgical bills (never snowboard with a pint of rum in your pocket), lost cell phones and rehab, my love of alcohol had cost me approximately $76,000. My moment of clarity came not when I saw that galling figure light up my calculator, but just a few days later, when I was walking home from work in a coat that wasn't warm enough for the season. I flashed back 10 or so years earlier, to a day when I was hung-over and interviewing a furrier for a story. Seductively, the furrier draped a sinfully luxurious coat over my shoulders, telling me it was made of lynx and that the lining was woven of silk and gold threads. I was thoroughly revolted, especially when he told me the coat retailed for $76,000. What an indulgent, wasteful way to protect yourself from the elements, I thought at the time. A few days ago, heat and bright light swelled in my fog-free brain as I made the connection between that awful coat and my own wasteful method of dealing with the elements.
So your old haunts are missing you
and they want to know where the hell you've been
so set aside your winter clothes a while
and let them see your skin
—"Your Old Haunts," Simon Joyner
After 12 months of sobriety, I wanted to drink all the time. I didn't have the desire to measure my life in coffee spoons anymore, and I no longer believed falling off the wagon automatically signaled the end of my existence. Moderation, however, continued to feel like a lie you tell yourself until you can't anymore. I felt isolated in the weeks immediately after September 11 because I couldn't join the world in drinking away its fears and heartache. In bars, people were getting gloriously tanked and talking about their feelings with total strangers. I sat next to them in silence because the words couldn't flow unless the alcohol did. I was embarrassed that my mind (or my "addict," as I've been taught to call it) wanted to use the unspeakable tragedies of September 11 as an excuse to get hammered. About a week after the tragedy, I told my friends that they'd probably see me drunk in the next few days, because I was just too tired of dealing. In the end, about the time we started bombing Afghanistan and all the anthrax hysteria overtook the media, a kind of ennui set in, and I lost the desire to booze it up.
My boyfriend broke my newly unprotected heart by becoming an all-too-predictable cliché. Once again he showed up on my back porch to deliver a sickening blow, seemingly out of the blue, although I knew it would come. I always knew the relationship would end in tears, and I clung to it desperately because a sad part of me needed to feel stupid and wrecked. In him I'd found a person who made me feel good and ashamed at the same time, just like alcohol used to.
He didn't stick around to make sure I stayed sober this time, and within minutes of his vacating my life, I walked out of my apartment and to a bar where I was sure no one I knew would be. On the way I encountered two friends who knew I didn't drink anymore, and it was obvious to them that I was on crumbling ground. "I don't think it's a good idea," said one when he figured out what was going on, but I just kept right on my way. Incredibly, two more friends were at the bar I chose specifically because it was off the beaten track. I stood there shaking and unable to make any kind of excuse for myself, then ran out the door.
One of my friends followed me and begged me not to drink. I told him to let me go, and he did because I wouldn't have it any other way. I walked to a tavern and, after noting a 12-stepper tending bar, detoured into the corner store to grab a bottle of crappy wine. I stood in front of the cooler for a good five minutes, sobbing and ashamed, before I reached out and grabbed a bottle. I took it up to the counter hoping to God someone would stop me, hoping that maybe the woman at the register would refuse to sell booze to someone so clearly distraught. But that's what alcohol is for, right? I got back to the apartment and popped the cork. Then I called the friend who'd begged me not to drink, and asked him to come and pour it out. I know he ran the whole way over because I heard his footfalls pounding up the block.
I was dragged to an AA meeting, and pulled myself back together. Then a few weeks ago, just before the holidays, I fell off the wagon for a couple of hours. Before I could stop myself, I'd ruined a friendship and, once again, nearly lost my life. I certainly lost my mind. It can happen that fast.
So I've fallen off the wagon once since I got out of rehab, and I'm told I may again, but I believe I won't. And that belief is sometimes all that gets me through the day.
There are so many things I hate about being sober: I hate always thinking that the person I'm having a conversation with isn't being sincere because they're drunk. I hate when guys act insulted when I turn down their offers to buy me a drink. "No strings attached," one responded recently. Buddy, you have no idea exactly what kind of strings most definitely are attached. I hate when drunks that I see drinking every night feel compelled to tell me they haven't got a problem, that they're just social drinkers. (I never drank at home.) I hate that sometimes I feel my face aching because I've been smiling like an idiot while listening to a long, meaningless story. (Payback for all the meaningless stories I subjected people to over the years.) I hate that I've offended friends by shrinking away because their alcohol-relaxed physical boundaries make me uncomfortable. I hate that I can't have a careless sexual fling, because beer goggles help so very much in that situation.
Most of all, I hate when people ask me why, if I don't drink, am I sitting in a bar? Someone once compared it to a lion tamer who had been mauled yet still hangs out in the cage to watch. That's exactly what it's like. Sometimes I make myself sit there on a Friday night so I can watch all the grossness, just so I'll remember that the good times were almost never as good as they seemed. I've learned to recognize the crazy light that shines in the eyes of someone who's experiencing a blackout, and I can pick out the people who are trying so desperately to be seen so that they don't have to look at themselves. I'm not there to judge, by any means. I'd be drinking right beside you if I could. I'm simply there to keep sober, and no, you don't have to tell me how crazy that sounds.
People have asked me if writing an article such as this makes me worry that if I take the dive, these word will mock me. I show them the words tattooed around my wrist, the words I'll see every time I pick up a glass. "Now you don't 'cause you can't." It's a line from a Built To Spill song about someone who used to drink a lot:
Now and then sometimes when you're thinking
about when you were always drinking
and how friendships came in one evening
you'd loudly pretend connecting had some meaning
but now you don't cause you can't recall
why you were possessed to say something
like come along with me
—"Now and Then," Built To Spill
I don't drink because I can't drink. The logic of it is simple, economic, and not particularly deep. But it works for me.
SO YOU WANNA QUIT DRINKING?
For most people, giving up drinking begins with AA. However, if you have health insurance through your employer, your coverage may include inpatient treatment. If it does, I strongly recommend taking full advantage of your benefits.
Also, you might want to find yourself a therapist who believes that getting to the bottom of why you want to drink is just as important as not drinking. Try to keep your mind occupied during your recovery, otherwise you'll become an asshole who doesn't drink, a.k.a. a "dry drunk." Listen and learn as people speak at AA, and become familiar with the addiction and spirituality sections at your local bookstores.
Try all kinds of treatment until you find the combination that works for you. --Kathleen Wilson
ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS OF SEATTLE
KING COUNTY DEPT. OF ALCOHOL & SUBSTANCE ABUSE SERVICES
VALLEY MEDICAL RECOVERY CENTER
LAKESIDE-MILAM RECOVERY CENTERS
SWEDISH ADDICTION RECOVERY SERVICES
CENTER FOR A POSITIVE ALTERNATIVE
(alternative to AA or 12-step treatment)