I got sober in Black-Eyed Susan season. They were everywhere that summer like they are right now. I hold onto images of them like I do this daily shot I got to be alive and heal with a solid, focused percentage of my thoughts and actions. Because the way I lived before is a shitty way to live, and a tremendously shitty way to die. I have watched it happen and it is ugly and devastating, and I still can't believe as much as I do see and comprehend that I got a second chance. Two years ago today I got just enough grace to help me save myself. I can't and don't bother quantifying how much; it was just enough. Sometimes I think of it as a crack in a door or a window, others it's just something that happened. One day things were like they were and then they changed. The flowers have marked that before and after for me. They really were what gave me the most hope at first, still are some days.
I certainly cannot understand why this happened, either. One minute I was standing in the rain in the dark on a curb on an ill-advised late night walk to a bar when it occurred to me for the first time that I really didn't have to live this way. This was a quiet, revolutionary, and totally uncomfortable thought. I absolutely believed I had to live that way because I didn't think I could stop it, and I was afraid of all of it, and of everything. It was something I thought would play out until I stopped breathing, and if you want the definition of desperation I don't have a better one in my lived experience.
Luckily that thought 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 who has taught me more about resilience in sobriety, really? I grabbed onto him as a heavy metal Linus blanket at 19 days because I needed something to talk to and he has stuck with me the whole way) and I asked for help with words that sounded like nothing intelligible in my usual vernacular. Words had actually started to get really fuzzy for me at that point, both retrieving them from my brain and stringing them together, which if you are familiar with me at all you can imagine was a particularly terrifying bottom.
To say I asked for help is generous. I recently stumbled across a Gchat from that day with a person who helped in that chat to save my life after I emerged from that bathroom stall. Mostly I wanted to talk about a person I had a crush on and oh by the way, should I stop drinking? Can I even do that? And will I write again if I do? Never mind that I hadn't really been writing for awhile 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, because I had many years of evidence of this.
Yes. She said yes to whatever she needed to, I know that now, and that meanwhile I had to take care of myself, so could I try to start do that? Whatever she said gave me the courage to message one more person to help me on the ground in my town, and I got to learn that I was wrong and that it doesn't matter what the specific words are when what's happening to me is not in my hands, thankfully.
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. (Oddly, I listened to a lot of Kenny Chesney, too, and that dude talks about beer constantly. Brains are so weird. Kenny is still my little pocket boyfriend from that summer, bless him.) Anyway, often times 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 don't believe in sugar-coating this experience, because the stakes are too high and the reality is too terrible for so many people. I also believe in talking about it on occasion, for the same reason. 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 let's face it, no one wants to talk about it, I'm guessing that most people lie about it when questioned, and it's amazing that it ever gets written down at all. The first doctor who handed me a pamphlet and dared to suggest that I not continue to "pull a Lohan" with my life was a superhero, because he didn't care if he pissed me off and he didn't 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 word I said, and when I finally woke 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. It's good to try anyway.
Alcohol is everywhere and nowhere. These numbers that have been counted up by the government--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 your 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 own living room wasted. This is just the truth. One revolution can be hashtagged with hearts and smileys and martini glasses, and one really shouldn't be discussed at all. I understand why this is but I still think it is backwards.
Nobody told me this could be the way it turns out when I had my first beer at a party, because a good percentage of the world's population can ingest alcohol without incident. There are people who don't even drink! I always looked at those people suspiciously, like they were either proselytizing missionaries out to steal my wine (newsflash: they mostly do not care about my wine) or professional joy killers looking like they were just sitting there minding their own business, but demons sent to torment me all the same. Turns out they just don't drink. Wild. Meanwhile I was just holding on unwittingly for a ride I was chemically and psychologically unable to tolerate, and when the shit hit the fan I got lucky after I looked really unlucky for a very long time.
I am so grateful today that the word sounds inadequate but it's still the best one I have. My life is full of real generosity, kindness, brilliance, and honesty from so many people. So much love, and I can even feel it most of the time. Things have gotten better while they have often looked messier in the process. I said to a friend the other day that sometimes I feel like I'm living in a middle-aged afterschool special, which given how obsessively I watched them as a child makes some twisted sense. Usually what happens at the end of those is that your counselor Valerie Bertinelli (or the like, but I like to imagine her) who is wearing a jumper and a Peter Pan-collared shirt and probably clogs fixes everything. People on the internet were my first Valerie Bertinellis. So I like to make it perfectly clear here, in case anyone reading needs Valerie Bertinelli too (and who doesn't, really?):
If you think that you cannot stop doing something that is killing you, I know that feeling really well. And if you get a break in that mental action, even for five minutes, I swear to you that that is long enough to try to let the light in. If you want not to do whatever it is just a little bit more than you do, that's a start. Sometimes it's the whole thing. Find me here, if you'd like, (I am also at email@example.com) or find someone you trust who is near you. Someone wants you to be okay, even if they don't know who you are yet. It's the best thing I've had the chance to learn in two years, so I like to throw it out there from time to time.