There are so many reasons not to want to be an alcoholic. It’s not the most glamorous affliction, and it doesn’t get the best rep. The word “alcoholic” instantly conjures up (for me) some old white man of varying functionality, mourning his wasted youth. I know that I’m not alone in this visual reflex – I hear this all the time. We’re not a very well represented folk, at least publicly. Privately, behind closed doors, in hushed conversations, we are a very diverse crew, impacting every color, race, socio-economic position, creed, level of success – we’re everywhere.
But because we’re only everywhere in the shadows, we, the imperial we, don’t know what it means to be an alcoholic. So we think being an alcoholic is what we’ve been told: to be an alcoholic means you failed, somehow. Somehow you’re less than. You’re not normal. You’re different. You’re not the same, you can’t come in, you can’t sit with us. You’re all of these things, all of these sad, scary things, and you’re not all of these other good things, more preferable things. Suddenly, all of your deepest, darkest fears are confirmed. And if you’re an alcoholic who chooses to get sober, now you can’t even drink about it.
So yeah, I can see how people don’t want to be an alcoholic.
But I am not going to make you get to the end of this post for the twist; I will tell you right now: none of that is true. Yes, we don’t metabolize alcohol “normally.” But the rest of it, being different or less than, or a failure – none of that is true. That is what some part of us believes, the part we’ve been drowning with booze. But, in my experience, I didn’t even meet that part of me, really – I didn’t get to know that part of me in a way that I could challenge it – until I stopped drinking. And then, and only then, did I realize how terrified I was that I was a failing in life, that I was a failure. And now, and only now, am I starting to see that I’m not. And that actually, none of us are, alcoholic or not. We’re not failures. We’re just human. And for alcoholics, being OK with being human, accepting the limitations of being human, is sometimes literally the fight of our lives. And what a relief it is when we start to see ourselves as mere mortals, as people allowed to have quirks and flaws.
But first comes early sobriety.
Early sobriety. What a mess. Though with a little less than three years of sobriety, I still consider myself in the early stages, there is nothing like the first few months to a year of quitting drinking. It’s incredible: you are full of hope, exploding with gratitude. It’s absolutely awful: you are despondent, out of control and terrified. It’s all of these things, often within moments of each other. You feel like you are going crazy. You are actually getting sane, but first you are delving into the layers of your insanity, and you are feeling – truly feeling things – for the first time in years. And sometimes you are feeling things at the level of maturity you were when you first started drinking.
I’ve read in various mental health/addiction literature that addiction stunts your development. Theoretically, if you started drinking as a teenager, then your emotional body is stuck being a teenager until you put down your substance and allow your authentic self to grow again, to flourish without being over-watered and over-fertilized. I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but for me, I absolutely felt like I was in high school again in my first year of sobriety: insecurities that had laid dormant for years suddenly got new life, and I was back to being convinced that I was the uncool friend who was being excluded from the party, that this friendship triangle pattern I had been apart of in high school was happening again, that inevitably I was going to have to take a turn of being left out, because that’s how friendship triangles work, and because I was destined to be misunderstood and left behind.
But that wasn’t what was happening. That’s what I was imagining. It’s like the timeless quote that “we don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are” (Anais Nin). And when you stop drinking, or stop doing whatever compulsion that was continuously (and very effectively) taking you out of yourself, who you are changes rapidly, dramatically, and without warning, because who you are is trying to find a safe place to land, and who you are doesn’t know if it’s safe to come out yet.
But rest assured, if there’s one thing I can say with confidence after bearing witness to remarkable woman after remarkable woman sober up over the past three years, who you are is already there, always, and she is so much more resilient, wise, funny and kind that you have dreamed of. She just needs you to start practicing being her, and she needs you to make a home for her.
But it’s probably gonna feel crazy first!
When I first got sober, I was working part-time at a restaurant that heavily featured whiskey-based cocktails. It was a bold choice. The first couple of weeks of not drinking, I used to walk in circles around the block near the restaurant, reading recovery literature on my phone. If it was busy and I couldn’t leave the restaurant for a walk around the block, I would hide in the bathroom and pray (to quote my favorite song from Hamilton – that never used to happen before), and read some more. I would get teary-eyed when a friend offered to pick up a shift, close the restaurant, or clean the bathroom that night so that I didn’t have to, because I was so damn grateful for that kindness, that act of friendship. I thought my heart was going to swell right out of my chest. I cried whenever I felt grateful, which was often, because I was so shocked at how compassionate people were, and how raw I was, and how much I needed that compassion.
I also cried all the time because people were being mean. Yup. Because people were hurting my feelings. I cried because people were being mean, hurting my feelings, and because I was not the most popular girl in school. One time a bartender said something critical to me during a shift, and my entire body welled up in tears, and I cried in the bathroom because I was so hurt. A year prior to this, I was yelling at a different bartender mid-shift because he was a fucking creep and saying douche-y things about a co-worker’s boobs. As a unabashedly loud and opinionated person, I have generally dismissed asshole men’s comments as coming from assholes (again, just the comments from assholes, I am not calling all men assholes. Or am I?), and either told them that they were being an asshole or not thought twice about it because their opinion didn’t matter to me. But in early sobriety, if boys teased me, I cried because they didn’t like me.
There’s a part of me that wouldn’t want to go back to early sobriety. And there’s another part of me who would, knowing what I know now. And I would try really hard to be super nice to that little girl who was emerging after years of being silenced, ignored, and avoided by alcohol, who just wanted me to know that she still had hurts that she had been carrying for years, that she existed, and that she needed me to finally pay attention to her and care for her.
I just read this quote by poet Nayyirah Waheed: “become intimate with your fears. listen to them. sit cross legged. give them your undivided attention … offer them comfort. offer them rest.”
And that’s what early sobriety is. All of our fears, all of our traumas, all of our difficult feelings, triggers and discomforts that activated our learned reflex that said “fuck it” and ordered a drink – all of the things that we have expertly, successfully kept hidden from ourselves because we didn’t think we could deal them – it’s all revealed once we start to thaw out.
But this happens because we are ready. We get sober, we start recovery, when we are ready, and not a minute sooner. It doesn’t always feel like we are ready – it usually feels like omigod I am NOT READY for this!!!! Abort! Abort! – but that’s because the ego part of ourselves doesn’t know that we can do it, won’t allow us to trust ourselves yet, doesn’t want us to join with what we’ve disowned because it thinks it needs to protect us from this hurt.
And it did. And we can thank it for helping us survive.
But the other part, your higher self, or wiser self, or maybe just your tired-of-this-shit self, knows better. In recovery speak, that part of yourself is called “your best thinking,” and it’s usually what gets you into a meeting. This part of yourself (which becomes more and more present and dominant the more you recover yourself), knows that it’s time.
In Malala Yousafzai’s autobiography, a doctor tells her: “It is my belief God sends the solution first and the problem later.”
After some time being surrounded by overwhelming overcoming and resilience in my recovery community, this is my belief too.
And the solution may look different for you than it does for me. My solution is a 12-step program (first and foremost), which fosters a relationship with a higher power (I call it spirit), and this allows me to make sense of the world and to be a part of it. My solution also involves therapy, exercise, being outside, smoothies, coffee, watching The Office, being around other people who are dedicated to bringing out the best in themselves (in recovery or otherwise), being of service, not taking myself or anyone else too seriously.
I didn’t know that these would be my solutions. I grew into them, and I will grow into more. And some days, I can only do one or two. And some days, all I can do – literally – is not drink.
Here’s the paradox, one of a zillion I’ve encountered since embracing a spiritual approach to life: You are your solution, but you cannot be your solution alone. You have everything that you need inside of you, but you need others to help you bring out these tools and use them safely and effectively. There is a divine part of you that knows all of the answers already, and there is a human part of you that will choose to fuck it all up anyway. And that is one of many reasons why we can’t recover alone.
Some people argue that 12 step programs, and AA specifically, breeds co-dependence, that you are replacing your reliance on alcohol with a reliance on the group, that you are taught not to trust yourself. I don’t know about all that. What I’ve taken away from 12 step work is that we rely on each other because that’s where we find ourselves, and that we were never meant to do this business of being human alone, that we were always going to have to discover each other along the way.
That’s the whole point.
So, yeah, now I love being an alcoholic. Because it brought me to my knees, and taught me how to stand again. Because the solution has been here the whole time for me, and alcohol was the problem that lead it me to it.
Before I sign off, I want to say that I feel pretty weird and conflicted that I am so open about being in 12-step programs because one of the most important, if not the most important, tenets of the program is anonymity, and that is for very good reason. No one person should ever represent a recovery circle, because then it becomes about that personality, and not about the mysticism and biggerness of the group, of the circle, of recovery, or redemption. To be blunt, if someone is reading this and doesn’t like me (and dude … I get it), than they might decide that a 12 step program is not for them, because they are afraid of becoming liberal, or a lesbian, or loud, or however else they deduce me. And then recovery may allude them, because they don’t like the personality of one member. So it’s very dangerous for any one person to associate themselves with a certain way of recovery.
On the other hand, I do look to the lesbians and gays for a precedent in this, because as renowned activist Harvey Milk said, about coming out:
“Gay brothers and sisters,… You must come out. Come out… to your parents… I know that it is hard and will hurt them but think about how they will hurt you in the voting booth! Come out to your relatives… come out to your friends… if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors… to your fellow workers… to the people who work where you eat and shop… come out only to the people you know, and who know you. Not to anyone else. But once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake. For the sake of the youngsters who are becoming scared by the votes from Dade to Eugene.”
I want to talk about recovery from alcoholism because there are so many myths and so much shame around addiction, and just as coming out as gay to loved ones shifted the perception of gayness and queerness over the years, I do believe coming out as an alcoholic and addict will shift the way we think about and respond to addiction, and shift the ways we treat the disease and treat those suffering from it. And because I choose to be open about my alcoholism, I have to talk about recovery work, because that’s a part of my story, arguably the most important part of my alcoholism story, and my story is the only one I have authority to tell.
I imagine I will go back and forth on this for years to come, but for now, this is what feels appropriate to me.
Below are some links to non 12 step recovery resources: