19 years ago today I was drunk and high

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…)

the last time I drank alcohol

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.

what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now

Sixteen years ago today I was at a St. Paul Saints game with a man I met in an AOL chat room. He was a nice guy, though I don’t remember his name and I’m pretty sure I never saw him again. What is memorable about that day wasn’t the game, or the guy, or being stoned out of my mind. What’s memorable is that on this day sixteen years ago I was drunk, and on every day since then, I haven’t been.

Before I began recovering from alcoholism, my life was ruled by fear. All of my earliest memories of drinking center around making me feel better inside. (Side note: Who remembers their first ice cream cone? Who remembers their first fresh picked strawberry? Not me. I clearly remember my first drinks.) There was the time I lifted the massive snifter filled with creme de menthe that had covered my ice cream sundae and as the sweet syrup warmed my throat and tummy I suddenly didn’t care that there was some sort of dramatic screaming festival happening over a credit card that was being denied. Or, the time I was lounging on the floor of the fort these guys made in the woods behind their house and I held up the bottle of tequila by the neck and announced, “The faster you drink it, the less you feel it!”

That was the key for me. Feeling less. I needed to find a way to feel less. Because I am an alcoholic, I believed alcohol provided a solution.

What it was like (before I began recovering from alcoholism) was a disconnected, terrified, determined-to-seem-“cool,” and disjointed life. I clung to solution after solution. After I moved here, things would be better. If my boyfriend would only want to get married and have a Martha Stewart (pre-prison) life with me, things would be better. If I did x, y, or z then things would be better. Live off the land? Tried it (lasted 3 days). Move across the country? (Did it, a couple times.) I was looking for the rules for living it felt like everyone else had that I never got.

In a pet-fur coated sweaty heat wave in St. Paul, Minnesota, I found myself instant messaging with a stranger from an AOL chatroom called “Friends of Bill W.” This person suggested it would be helpful if I talked to alcoholics who had found a way to live without alcohol that, he said (the person said he was a “he”), was “happy, joyous, and free.” At that point in my life, I believed “happy” meant “full of shit lying loser.” But, I was also pretty desperate. I didn’t drink for 24 hours (thus, July 3 is my “sobriety date”) and I called someone who had learned how to recover from alcoholism.

The first conversations I had with recovering alcoholics centered around the idea that the desire to stop drinking was all I needed to have. Because I was pretty obsessed with not calling myself alcoholic if I wasn’t one (I was really worried other alcoholics would get mad at me if I did that…??!?!) having this first conversation center around such a simple idea was a beautiful thing.

It turns out I’m actually allergic to alcohol (that’s what alcoholism is, in great part). When I drink my body goes almost immediately into a fireworks finale of MORE MORE MORE GIVE ME MORE. I always wanted oblivion. There were certainly times when I sipped a glass of wine, or nursed a beer for hours (I never did like beer, though I drank plenty). Mostly, though, that burning warmth going into my mouth and down my throat and in through my belly and through my blood stream and oh wow, yes, whoa I want more of this now. Instead of acting as a depressant as it would in a “normie” (non-alcoholic), it acted as an upper and a number and it was just what I needed. (I thought.) Instead of a rash or anaphylactic shock my body responded to alcohol (a poison for any of us if not taken in moderation) with an overwhelming desire for more.

Combine this allergy in my body with the spiritual sickness that causes my mind to always find a way to believe that I’ll be able to drink normally (somehow, some way, some day) and you’ve got my alcoholism. My mind, despite the fact that I consider myself recovered (not “recovering”), will always turn to the idea that I might drink safely again. The difference these days is I know that and I’m able to use the tools I learned to say, “Huh, must be I’m an alcoholic” and the thoughts just flit on out of my mind as quickly as they flit on in.

When I first began living in recovery, I was surrounded by amazing people. I took life one day at a time, sometimes one hour at a time, and sometimes a few minutes at a time. I practiced and practiced and practiced living. I kept myself wrapped well up in communities that would support my new alcohol (and drug) free life. It became so much a part of my daily living that when I encountered someone who got a little weird when I said I was an alcoholic, I was surprised. I forgot, back then, how loaded (ha) the issues are for so many people.

As for what it’s like now… I wouldn’t change a single thing even if I could without causing negative consequences. There isn’t anything in my life about which I feel regret in the way that makes me wish it hadn’t happened. It all brought me here and made me who I am and I like that.

What it’s like now is that I live. I live. I live my life and when I catch fear trying to get in here and take over, I have ways of working through it all. I passionately embrace my every moment’s imperfections. My mistakes make me who I am as much as my “successes.”

With the help of other alcoholics who learned how to live before I did, I picked up some great tools to help me function in day to day living. Early on in my recovery, the desire to drink (that mental obsession or spiritual sickness I mentioned) was “lifted.” It just went away. I also found a concept of “god” that became a part of my life in the same way that eating or writing or breathing is. I’m able to rely on this wordless strength-giver to get through things that feel un-get-throughable.

I will always be an alcoholic. No matter how “spiritually fit” I am, my mind will always try to convince me I could drink safely again. But, because I have recovered from alcoholism, I have tapped into a strength that is greater than my mind that allows me to live beyond this wrong obsession. With outrageous and enthusiastic imperfection, I am present in my life. I feel joy and pain and sadness and delight—and all sorts of shades and intensities of feelings—and for all of it, I am grateful.