Reflections On One Year of Sobriety: Coming Home

Original post date: September 16th, 2018

Today I am sober 365 days. One year. Somehow this feels quieter than previous milestones, cooler, less momentous than those early numbers (thirty days, sixty days) that signified a getting over of some grand hump. They say it takes ninety days to change a habit (who “they” are exactly, I’m never sure), so watching my sobriety app tick its way toward three months was motivating. Six months was exciting. After that I started to check the app much less frequently, but this week, barreling down on an anniversary, I’ve been checking the numbers much more often, sometimes multiple times a day, because that shit counts the hours, the minutes, the months, and eventually, the years.

You know what else I did this week? I got a tattoo (eep!). A snake, slithering up my forearm. I knew there was no creature more appropriate to etch permanently onto my skin than one that routinely sheds its own. Because while sobriety to me now is like a second skin, something I don’t question, or think about anywhere near as much, it took me a minute to get here. More than a minute. It took a year. Four seasons worth of molt, with all its associated itchiness, sensitivity, confusion.

Here, on the other side: if I’d known that what would be revealed would be clearer, and brighter, and dare I say, more beautiful than anything I could have imagined, I would go back to the beginning, all the generations back in time, and I would never have taken a single sip.
I’d say I’ve been fairly transparent with my journey. And, I’ve also held back. A lot. Namely because I remember all too well what I thought of people like me: teetotalers, non-drinkers, sober people. When I was still drinking, I thought people who didn’t drink were boring. Tightasses. Holier than thou folks, looking down their noses at people like me—regular people who liked to take the edge off, cut loose, blah blah blah. Maybe you have your own associations. So now I’m here wanting to scream from all available mountaintops how much my life has improved since I quit but I’ve held myself back because I’m afraid you won’t like me if I start posting about this stuff all the time. That you’ll distance yourself from me, view me as some fanatic.                                                                                                                           *****
The day before my thirty-third birthday, I got hit by a car. Riding home on my yellow Vespa on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, five minutes from home, a man driving a $250k car hit me head on. I flew twenty-five feet, landing on my back on top of a manhole cover and could not feel my legs. I remember everything: the millisecond before I got hit; the angels who surrounded me directly after, held my hand as I heard sirens approach; the other angels who made sure the man who hit me did not disappear before the police arrived; the five-minute ride to San Francisco General that felt like two days. To say that almost dying, or being involved in something that, had circumstances been slightly different, could have ended everything (my backpack saved me, of this I’m sure), well, to say that it causes you to re-evaluate your life is an understatement. What I didn’t expect was that the road to this re-evaluation would be slower, more circuitous, and ten times more fucking painful than I ever could have predicted.

Because I fancied myself the type of person who learned lessons from trouble (aside the “I told you so” I heard in my dad’s voice the moment I hit the ground), in those first few weeks post accident, laying in my bed in pain, doing my best to glom onto any possible silver lining, I declared 2017 my Jesus year. I aimed on being reborn. What I forgot is all the pain Jesus had to endure before he was resurrected (also: it’s not lost on me the wildly egotistical nature of such a statement! But bear with me, if you will).

I knew I was wildly lucky that my injuries weren’t worse. The level of gratitude I felt for the simple fact of my life was so profound I could taste it, and there was a new urgency, a visceral push to no longer waste a single moment. And yet. In those few weeks post accident, a few weeks that stretched into one, two, three months, and beyond, old behaviors started to creep back in, old ways of coping that didn’t align with who I so desperately wanted to be. Until this thing happened to me that showed me how fragile all this actually is, I would have told you I was no longer at risk for these old habits. But there I was, smoking cigarettes on the dark rides home from my grad school classes, saying yes to whatever was poured in front of me.

After years of so much self work, when shit hit the fan, when it really mattered, I didn’t trust myself. This was the biggest surprise: slithering my way back after the accident, it wasn’t the physical pain that hurt the worst. It was the ensuing soul-pain.

By day I was this sunshiny, happy, smart woman, and then night would come and I would morph into someone else. It was confusing. I knew in some ambiguous way that I had to face my “shadow side,” but I continued to stall. I was afraid of losing some essential part of me. The part of me that was fun. That made me OK in social situations, around people I didn’t know. The part of me OK with myself. I knew I wanted freedom from my demons, but then I also wanted to drink whisky and talk shit and feel that slow sizzle of buzz rise up my spine and into my fingertips, feel that inner brightening that would set fire to the tips of my hair, light up that thing inside that after a few drinks could have folks hanging on my every word, that had me comfortably at the center, a place I so desired but could not figure out how to access without being altered.

Outwardly, my life seemed OK. I was in my second semester of grad school to pursue writing, something I’d wanted to do my entire life but had talked myself out of forever. I had a loving and true blue boo. I was becoming stronger than I’d ever been, part of gym with a community that had become family. I taught yoga, which in some far-off way I thought implied something about what a balanced person I was (tongue very firmly in cheek here). And yet. On the inside, my self hatred had reached a crescendo. Despite all my newfound strategies, sitting there with myself post-accident, I could no longer outrun all the emotional stuff I’d never addressed. So I did all the things I used to do in the lost days of my early twenties. I began numbing out. Seeking oblivion. Fleeing myself, all the parts that were too goddamn much.

That silver lining I mentioned at the beginning? My own, slow-motion resurrection? I found it in retrospect: in a soul shredding hangover that ultimately led me to one of the greatest decisions of my life.
What sobriety revealed to me: I had no idea who the fuck I was. Who was I without my strategies, without the mask I put on to face the world, without anything to soften my jagged edges? How the hell would I handle social situations without taking the edge off? Would people still like me? Would my friends run from me? If I told the truth about my life, if I stopped hiding, stopped lying, stopped trying so hard, would people stick around? What would happen if I told the truth? Some elusive truth that I couldn’t even pinpoint but had something to do with feeling always like there was something seriously wrong with me I had to keep hidden, because if people found out about how disgusting I was they would never want to come near me again.

Another grand surprise: it took quitting alcohol to realize that my worth is not contingent on outside forces granting it to me. 

There are so many things I’m trying to understand. About alcohol. And addiction. And why so many of us cannot handle being with the full range of who we are. Why it’s too much, and why it’s so impossible to understand, to even imagine, how else we might manage. Thrive, even. A person can only be told so many times that they are too much before it becomes the truth they tell themselves. Even though I understood this intellectually, it took getting sober for me to know on a bone level that my too muchness was not a liability, but a boon. That there was nothing wrong with me. Nothing ever was. 
It’s hard to write about this, to tell the truth about the messy parts of my life. It’s hard to admit that so many of my formative experiences and early attempts at adulting were inauthentic because I was hiding under substance. It’s embarrassing to see friends all around me hitting milestone after milestone and I’m over here trying to figure out who I am, what I really like. You see, I was not a “falling down drunk” by the time I quit. I don’t identify as an alcoholic, or an addict. Before that last big bender, where I woke up and knew I was finally done, I was drinking maybe four drinks maximum each week. And still. Even that small amount was keeping me just numb enough from my life that I couldn’t make the changes necessary to become the person I knew I was capable of being, the person who, post-accident, woke up and did not like what she saw in the mirror. So I share all of this not to convince you not to drink, but in case you are living in your own murky gray area, in case you are open to considering a different way.

I’m not an prohibitionist. I think people should make their own informed choices about what they consume, what they put in their bodies, how they unwind (I still unwind, just now it usually means throwing a barbell around, or reading, or pounding a Topo Chico). But I also know that alcohol related deaths take the lives of 88,000 people every year. To put that into context: if you add up all the deaths from both legal and illegal drugs combined, they account for 64,000 deaths. I have yet to meet a person whose life hasn’t been negatively effected somehow by alcohol. Either directly or indirectly. I can’t keep quiet about this! 

The last thing I want to say: quitting alcohol doesn’t have to be hard. It doesn’t have to be “one day at a time,” a constant slog up some hill, a pervasive FOMO. It’s possible to simply be free. To simply be a non-drinker. To stay with who you are no matter what life brings, to trust that your inhibitions exist for a reason.  I also know there can be a way through without shame, without stigma, which is why I’m writing this today. Why I will continue to write about it, and share my story.

Aside from no longer drinking alcohol, my life isn’t all that different. I have most of the same problems—some of my problems have even gotten bigger. But the way I show up for life now, the way I am able to stay with whatever is happening and know I can handle it? This is something I never thought possible for myself. So today I’m also taking a step toward helping others take their own steps should that be a choice they want for themselves. I have no idea what that looks like. All I know for sure is that it starts with me telling my story, which is this: getting sober isn’t losing something. It’s gaining everything. Everything I always thought I’d find at the bottom of a glass only came true for me when I laid down said glass for good. So here I am, underbelly exposed, making my slow slither out of this old form. I have no idea what the next four seasons will bring. All I know is that instead of doing everything I can to flee, I can stay. I can stay right here. 

Maybe by this time next year, I’ll be ready to get off my belly, find some legs. Who knows, maybe I’ll grow wings.