alcoholism

Only July 1st in 1996 I celebrated the fact that I wasn’t an alcoholic by drinking many, many vodka lemonades with a stranger in a Minneapolis bar. My reasoning made sense at the time: I hadn’t had any alcohol for three months, so, surely, I must not be an alcoholic.

What I didn’t understand then is that how much, how often, when, or what I drink (or how long I don’t drink) doesn’t tell me much about my alcoholism. Whether I’m drinking or not, I’m allergic to alcohol. When I drink it, I experience almost immediately a physical craving for more. I simply don’t have the ability to moderate my drinking once I’ve started. We all know what drinking too much alcohol can lead to, ranging from a messy personal life to death of oneself or others. So, you’d think that stopping drinking would be the solution, right?

Well, in addition to the physical allergy, I also have a quirky brain that doesn’t let me remember I’m allergic. The book called Alcoholics Anonymous (also known as “the Big Book”) describes this as a “mental blank spot,” or a “peculiar mental twist.” No amount of will power will keep this truth — that I’m allergic to alcohol — in my brain. The “Big Book” even describes this as a kind of insanity, and I don’t use that word lightly. It’s baffling.

It turns out I needed to find a spiritual solution; the power I need to keep the truth in my brain — that I can’t drink safely — has to come from what I now call god. Other people call it spirit, a higher power, universal wisdom, or an infinite number of other terms. Through a 12 step program, I found a way to tap into that power with a focus on recovering from alcoholism, and it worked.

Each year in this last week of June and first week of July, I have faint memories of what it was like back then. The memories are fuzzy. What I remember most is how terrified I was, and how terrified I was that someone would find out I was so terrified. What people thought of me mattered a lot. And I suppose that’s probably true for most 20-somethings, but it was especially true for me. I felt like everyone else had been given an instruction book for life that I somehow missed out on.

Not drinking was only the beginning of my life getting better, but it was an important part of that beginning. After I stopped drinking, I found a way to live a life that is “happy, joyous, and free.” To keep that gift in my life, I need to continue expanding my spiritual life. And, let me tell you, addressing my own racism and the truth about white supremacy/racialized capitalism has been requiring deep spiritual growth. It’s only because I recovered from alcoholism that I’ve been able to begin facing my addiction to whiteness. In this part of my life’s journey, I’ve only just begun. Recovery through the 12 steps and the tools I learned in the fellowship of recovering people allow me to find courage and faith to stay on this path. And for that, I am so, so grateful.

24 years ago today (tonight) I was wondering how I’d gotten drunk and high again after telling myself I was going to quit. In fact, I had quit drinking! for three months! It’s just that I celebrated how easy it was to quit by drinking a lot of vodka lemonades and getting stoned. (It made sense at the time?)

24 years ago, I didn’t know I was allergic to alcohol. I didn’t know my brain worked in some very specific mixed up ways. First, putting alcohol into my system sets off a phenomenon of craving that I can’t resist. I don’t just want more. It feels like I *need* more. I MUST have more! It’s an allergic reaction (abnormal reaction) beyond my control. (Just like people allergic to peanuts have a reaction they can’t control.) This inability to control how much I drink leads to all the kinds of ugliness that getting too wasted can bring (to put it mildly).

The second way my brain is mixed up is that I’m not able to hold on to the truth that I can’t drink alcohol safely. There’s a gap there that never goes away if I rely entirely on education, intellect, or personal will power. If I TRY with all of my might to remember that drinking alcohol leads to bad, bad consequences, I’ll eventually forget and I’ll drink again.

As a part of a community of people with the same problem, I used what is commonly known as a “twelve step program” to clear away the wreckage of my past and start growing spiritually. Through that work, I found freedom. Life still has its ups and downs, of course, but I’m able to hold on to the truth that I can’t drink alcohol safely. That truth stays in my brain because I’ve developed a spiritual life, a connection to a power greater than myself. I call it god, but that’s really a shortcut for “whatever is just beyond human understanding” so what it actually *is* changes all the time.

Living a life without alcohol and drugs is my normal now. It’s simply not an issue. Because I need to keep enlarging my spiritual life, I stay connected to that fellowship of recovering alcoholics. I share my experience, strength, and hope with other people with substance use disorder. I mentor people who want to know “how I did it,” in the same way I was mentored over the last 24 years. The people who remind me what it was like give me so many gifts! And I get to say, hey, it doesn’t have to be a struggle to live without drugs and alcohol. :-)

The other day I was talking with my daughters about being in long-term recovery, how I was trying to remember what it was like to hear someone say they were sober for as long as I’ve been now. I think early on I would’ve both been awestruck and also terrified and horrified. There’s a reason we talk about taking things one day at a time. If I would’ve tried to commit to never drinking again, I surely would’ve lost it. I was able to take it one day at a time (sometimes 10 minutes at a time) and not drink. As the time free from alcohol began adding up, I was able to work on my spiritual life and find a way to know peace.

24 years ago tomorrow was my first 24 hours on the journey of recovery. It’s a good life.

Most days I don’t remember exactly what I was doing x number of years ago. But, today, on this evening I remember clearly what I was doing 23 years ago. I was house sitting in St. Paul, MN. I was (sorry to our family friends in whose home I was sitting who might read this post!) very, very stoned (marijuana) and a little drunk. I was in emotional crisis, too. I was suddenly truly terrified that I might be an alcoholic.

Three months before, I had wondered if I was an alcoholic. A few years before, even, I might’ve wondered. Back then, though, I was more interested in diagnosing other people’s problems than I was interested in looking at my own.

So, for three months in the spring of 1996, I didn’t drink any alcohol. (I got high. A lot. But that wasn’t drinking, I reasoned.) After three months, I celebrated being not an alcoholic — it was really easy, I was sure, to not drink! — with vodka lemonades alone in a bar in Minneapolis.

That evening, I befriended another 20 something woman who told me she was a heroin addict in recovery. I didn’t know much about substance use disorders and I don’t think it crossed my mind that it was odd that she was drinking with me. We celebrated our non-alcoholism a lot, without a hint of irony. Somehow I got back to the house where I was staying back over in St. Paul; I’m pretty sure I drove. I contacted (via America Online) the hot guy I’d been messaging with and he came over. He was an alcoholic in recovery. I knew that. And, honestly, it made the idea of not drinking a little bit more interesting to me. He was really cute! We made out for a bit and then he went home. He was conflicted about hooking up with someone who wasn’t sober who was also thinking she might need to be. I’m grateful that he left.

July 3, 1996 was the first 24 hours of my life in recovery from alcoholism. I haven’t had to take a drink (or get high) since that time. My life today is happy, joyous, and free.

Since that time, I’ve learned that I have a disease of the body and mind. To recover, I had to not only stop putting the alcohol in my body—putting any alcohol in my body sets off a phenomenon of craving that makes it impossible for me to control how much alcohol I drink. I also had to get honest with myself and do some internal housecleaning so I could connect with a power greater than myself.

See, the weirdest thing about alcoholism is that if I rely only on my mind, it will tell me it’s safe to drink eventually. No matter how much will power or common sense I have, and no matter how many awful consequences follow getting drunk, without spiritual help I will find myself thinking that taking a drink won’t hurt me. It’s a bizarre disease! But, the spiritual solution (of depending on my higher power to remove the idea that I can drink safely) really, really works.

It works so well that I forget how hard it was for me those days. Living was difficult back then because I didn’t know how to be in the world with all the feelings we humans have. I lived in fear most of the time, but was convinced I was afraid of nothing. These days I’m still human, so I have my ups and downs, but for the most part I find myself in what Thich Nhat Hanh and other Buddhists call “the Middle Way.” My Quaker practice and my other spiritual practices help me stay grounded and present in this day. Life feels like a gift, even on my worst days. (Okay, on my worst days maybe I binge watch something on Netflix and don’t feel much of the giftishness of life, but because I’m living in recovery, I always know things will get better!)

I love living in recovery and I wouldn’t have it any other way. If anyone who is reading this has any questions about it, please don’t hesitate to ask!

Nineteen years ago today, I was stoned and drunk. I was chatting on AOL. I was sort of house sitting, but really I was crashing at my parents’ friends’ home in Minneapolis/St. Paul. It was hot. No air conditioning. I’d gone to a St. Paul Saints game with a guy I met in a chat room earlier in the day. He was nice, as I recall. I was arranging to have another AOL guy come over later that night.
The night before, I’d celebrated being not an alcoholic at a bar in Uptown by drinking vodka lemonades. I’d stopped drinking—easily it felt—for three months. It didn’t feel difficult to quit, so I must not be an alcoholic, right? What better way to celebrate than getting hammered?
I’ve written about my experience as an alcoholic, a person in long-term recovery, many times. Here, here, or here, for example. In fact, I see now that I certainly repeat myself (the AOL guy and the baseball game shows up at least twice).
One of the reasons I find it so important that I continue talking with other recovering alcoholics about being recovered, or recovering, is that I’ve forgotten what it was like before the desire to drink was lifted. I don’t remember what it’s like to live without hope. I don’t remember what it’s like to wake up in the morning wondering how in the heck I got where I was or what did I do last night?
If I don’t actively talk about my recovery and do some other key things that I’ve learned over the years, my disease—and if that term needs to be defined loosely, that’s fine, it works for me—will use the faded quality of my memories to sneak in and make me think maybe I can drink normally.
There’s an interesting piece in The Atlantic (h/t to my Bangor Daily News editor, Matt Stone) debunking 12-step programs as irrational. It’s funny, because irrationality doesn’t bother me. I think it’s over-rated. The article has some great points and some misguided ideas. What I like, though, is that it’s being discussed in public.
When I got sober (entered recovery, I guess is the best way to describe it these days) in Minneapolis, everyone I knew was sober. Everywhere I went, people were in recovery. It was almost a badge of honor to be in recovery, really. They call it “land of 10,000 treatment centers,” don’t they? (They do.)
After moving to Houston, and then to Maine, I regularly forgot that not everyone finds it completely no big deal to be in recovery. It’s such a natural part of my life, it feels not at all controversial. When I watched Anonymous People—I highly recommend it, especially if you are in recovery—I realized that my casual attitude was sort of radical.
As I think about where I’m going with this blog post, I’m reminded of the amazing lesson I learned in recovery: my foibles can benefit others. I can be “all over the place” with an imperfectly formed essay that rambles around and touches on some points but doesn’t really make one major point and it’s okay. My life is and will be—if I keep doing the things I’ve learned are most helpful for me—all about “progress, not perfection.”
(edited to add: 19 years ago tomorrow, I hadn’t had a drink or drug for 24 hours and haven’t found it necessary to drink or drug since then…)

Seventeen years ago yesterday, I spent my first 24 hours as someone who didn’t drink or get high. I was very lucky. I happened to be in the right place at the right time. In an AOL chat room in 1996, someone suggested I go to a gathering of other alcoholics who had found a way to live life without alcohol. I fell into a community of people who helped me believe that knowing peace was possible.
These days, I find it uncomfortable talking about how long I have been sober. I’m working to get over that, but, I have become one of those people who no longer believes that the length of time I’ve been sober has much to do with the quality of my sobriety or my life. Again, I got lucky. The foundation I landed on as I learned to live life without alcohol was strong. People guided me and shared with me resources that turned into my guidelines for living. I found a spiritual connection to what I call “god,” though it aligns more closely with my atheist friends’ concepts of life than it does with my religious friends. The connection is there, and for me, that’s what matters. These days, I recognize that many years of not drinking does not equal superior wisdom.
I frequently learn more today from people who are just beginning their journey into recovery than I do from “old timers.” The long-term sobriety people have important messages, too. But, at this point, it helps me so much to remember how frightening life was before I recovered. Through all of my life’s challenges in the last five years or so, I haven’t fallen into the world of fear that was my familiar life before I recovered. When “newcomers” remind me how mixed up life felt at the start, I am deeply grateful for my life and I am excited and hopeful for them. If they get to have even a fraction of the goodness I’ve felt learning how to live life as a recovered alcoholic, they will feel–as publications about recovery describe–”happy, joyous, and free.”
For a long time, I have known intuitively that difficult and dark times always get better. There was a brief period a few years ago, when I faced despair and lost my way. That happened not because I forgot the lessons of recovery, but because my brain chemistry changed and I needed medical assistance. Because of my experience living in the solution from alcoholism, I recognized my darkness was not something I should–or could–live inside. So, I got help.
I am allergic to alcohol. My body doesn’t respond normally to it. Rather than acting as a depressant, it acts as a stimulant. A feeling of craving sets in as soon as it hits my bloodstream (or, perhaps, as soon as I taste it). Not only am I allergic to it, but, before I recovered, I was constantly battling a spiritual confusion. My mind returned to the idea that I could drink without that allergic reaction. Imagine if I was allergic to shellfish, but I kept “forgetting” and ate it anyway. That’s the “insanity” of alcoholism. The only solution that worked for me, to relieve this mental obsession, was to reach out to what I call “god.” A spiritual solution.
In any case, today I am deeply grateful for all of the alcoholics who have gone before me and for those who are just finding out what life without alcohol can be for us alcoholics.
Each of these annual milestones bring up surprising reflections. The past changes as the future moves on. Today, I am returning to my roots of living life as a recovered alcoholic and spending more time with other recovered and recovering drunks. It is right and true. I feel all the feelings life brings. But, mostly, I am happy, joyous, and free.