The Opposite of Numb
Last Wednesday I got home from a three week trip to Spain. Back in October, I found a round trip ticket in and out of Barcelona for $340. It was cheaper to fly across the world than it was to go see my bestie in Boulder. Part graduation celebration, part birthday present (I turned 35 while I was there), big part decompression from a Very Intense Year, in the days and weeks leading up to my departure I started jokingly referring to it as the “How Dani Got Her Groove Back” trip. I made zero plans before I left for what I would do once I arrived. I cut out an entire leg of what I originally planned because I realized I was going to be on a plane every three-to-four days which did *not* sound relaxing. I asked my roommate to change my Facebook password so I wouldn’t be tempted to scroll, I deleted email from my phone, I left the laptop behind.
While I was away, the plum tree outside my window shed every last of her blossoms, and the purple leaves that have taken their place are so full and fluffy that the whole tree seems to have grown three sizes. It’s still rainy here, though signs of spring are emerging: poppies on the hills, irises in the damp, our unique San Francisco geography so green every way you turn.
I find myself in that strange place of integrating a big experience in a private way. Most people want to hear the highlights, so I hold most of what happened close, polishing the memories in my mind so as not to forget even a single moment, scrolling through the play-by-play of daily photos in bed as the last thing I do before sleep, sending WhatsApp messages to my friends over there in attempts to keep something alive, some energy that try as I might to keep active in my daily life is never possible. It’s bittersweet, it’s true, it’s beautiful, and I’m grateful.
Thirteen years ago, I lived in Spain for my junior year of college. It was one of the best years of my life. And, it was there that my drinking escalated to a degree that still makes me cringe. I lost earrings, jackets, sunglasses, so many things laid down, fallen away, forgotten. My cigarette smoking habit ramped up to a pack a day. I passed out on a sidewalk after a night of partying. I fainted under fluorescent lights while on MDMA. I blacked out countless times. I did drugs while drunk, I snorted things off the fingernails of people I did not know. I was twenty-one, and I thought this was what people did. In my wandering, I surrounded myself with not one person who reflected anything other than normalcy back to me, and I lied to everyone else. And though I ditched the drugs after that year, alcohol, that culturally acceptable drug, stayed close.
So yes, my return thirteen years later was indeed a celebration. But it was more than that, too. Part of this journey of recovering who I am has included a tracing back in time, full of countless attempts of dot connecting, doing my best to understand how I got to some of the places I had to go to get to where I am today. So, this return was an experiment. Another recovering, an integration of the lost girl I was then with the woman I am now.
Anyway. I went to Spain alone and I did exactly what I wanted to do. I sat in cafés, drinking way too much coffee (if you go to Barcelona, or Granada, or Pamplona, please let me give you all the coffee reco’s - coffee in Spain leaves much to be desired for spoiled coffee snobs like me), writing, people watching. I packed light, what ended up being the perfect amount to fit in a small carry-on. I didn’t worry about whether or not I was doing enough, staying busy enough, filling my time with activities. I didn’t want to go to the Sagrada Familia, wait in lines, be crowded, so I didn’t. I didn’t want to shuffle around museums. I wanted to eat good food, write, blend, practice my Spanish, follow anything that called to me. So there I was, in a familiar yet unfamiliar place, so present from moment-to-moment in that way that only happens while travelling—even more so by dint of my aloneness—and though it wasn’t quite as front-of-mind as I expected, it was impossible not to see everything through the lens of sobriety, recovery, of what it was like to walk that talk while abroad.
Before I got on the plane, I was nervous about going to Europe as a non-drinker. Afraid of pressure, or people thinking I was weird, or feeling uncomfortable—I had this ambiguous trepidation that after many months of strengthening into my sobriety, I would be tested in some way by being in a different culture, and so far away from my comfort zone, and all my people who love me as-is.
Here’s the thing I discovered: travelling around Spain, nobody cared whether or not I drank. Nobody cared whether I paired Spanish wine with dinner, or declined cañas (with their promise of free tapas) in favor of “agua con gas” at every bar in Granada. It wasn’t a thing. Which points to a bigger thing: it wasn’t a thing in Europe because not drinking is no longer a thing for me. I no longer desired to leave myself in order to be OK with myself. Eighteen months in, I have finally begun to touch upon some level of inner and outer congruence. I have arrived somewhere real, an actual, tangible reality, so much steadier than the mythical land of moderation I so desperately sought for so long, to the point that what I thought was me seeking something was actually just me bashing my head against a wall for nearly two decades.
The more time I rack up between my last drink and today, the more I see my life hitting a level of congruence that surprises me. I see how, the longer I am sober, the more of the excavating work I do, the more my inner and outer worlds settle into alignment. No longer am I walking through the world with a mask I show in public, that I only take off when I come home. No longer am I putting on a happy, shiny disposition and then feeling sick to my stomach every night with anxiety, fear, despair. Which reminds me of another thing I noticed: How much quieter it was compared to other times. No big highs, no horrific lows. No crazy, wild nights followed by scraping myself off the floor. No drama. No murky evenings followed by patchwork remembering. No regrets (except for meeting up with an ex-boyfriend, though that’s a tale for another time). There is still work to be done, of course. I still have moments of deep confusion, periods of anxiety, the root of which I can quite pinpoint, fear of putting my words out into the world.
Do you know what surprised me more than how much of a non-issue my non-drinking was? Seeing this sense of congruency play out in real time, this idea I’ve been mulling over but hadn’t really understood the extent to which was working as I went about my “normal” city life back home. How fucking encouraging it was to not just feel free inside, but to see how easily and smoothly that was reflected outwardly back to me, as I simply went about my days.
This congruency, this—dare I say—peaceful feeling? Holy shit, THIS is what I’d been seeking from drinking. THIS was freedom! Sometimes that freedom felt exultant, boisterous, celebratory, overflowing...mostly it was, is, quiet, a slow, steady inner light. Inner and outer, over and over, aligning more and more every day. And this is the work, you know? As I keep saying (experiencing): the quitting wasn’t the end, it was the very very beginning. Then came the work. All the work. Not drinking wasn’t a panacea. If anything, it was the quitting that had me get for real, on a bone, blood, skin, organ level, that panaceas don’t exist. That there are no magic pills, no quick fixes. Had me get FOR REAL the degree to which I had been magically thinking my way through life, ever farther away from reality. And yeah, I know I’ve been writing about what is ultimately the same stuff over and over lately. But who can blame me? After a whole life spent in distrust of my most basic instincts, desires, my sense of self, my identity bleeding out, no clear boundaries...it makes sense that this processing will take a while, I need time to settle, to truly understand what is actually happening. How this is working.
But, WAIT! I write that as if I’ve been a passive part of this equation. As if I’m just floating along, and not a woman who has been diligently putting in a lot of work to change her life. Walking around Spain, beholden to no one, vital, alive, responsive, all these words that are the opposite of numb: I could see the magic of recovery playing out in real time. All the parts that I’ve had a challenging time articulating, that by going to Spain, and actively pushing myself out of my bubble, finally gave me the words to describe.
It hit me: despite all the work I’m putting in, there *are* also other elements at play, the harder to describe-type elements: things like mystery, faith, magic.
Here’s what I’m seeing, as far as how this is working: There’s the work part, the part where we are disciplined in our commitments and yeah, maybe less exciting, where we force ourselves to meditate and drink lemon water first thing in the morning and get organized with our finances and clean up weird relationship stuff and ditch bummer friends for more wholesome ones and create boundaries and stand up for ourselves and you know, practice being kind to the human we see staring back at us in the mirror instead of barely being able to look her in the eye...and then there’s the magic part, where we lean into the mystery, the unknown, where we get comfortable taking our hands off the proverbial controls, where we learn to trust rather than control our lives. Living in paradox, having faith that the good, hard work will pay off, even if it takes a while, even when there is no clear delineation or explanation. Getting appropriate support—I’d throw that in there, too. Mirrors are helpful, vital. We need the outer mirror of community, to reflect back the inner mirror of (hopefully) an evolving inner congruency. That place where the metaphorical pendulum can finally come to rest. So, maybe I *do* know how this is working. It’s not all mystery, though damn, can we please rain all possible blessings down on the part that most certainly, undeniably, *is.*
Quitting drinking gave me back my life. Brought me home. Handed to me what I’d been chasing since the beginning of time: a sense of belonging. I don’t question whether or not I’m supposed to be here anymore. After spending my entire life feeling like I was always just barely staying ahead of the eight-ball (or whatever that saying is, I think I’ve attempted to play pool exactly twice in my life), to feel some of the work circling back around? Giving me a taste that it might *actually* be possible to have the type of life I’ve always wanted but never thought would be available to someone like me? I’m all fluffed up—just like a certain plum tree.