This post was originally published on October 1, 2015.
When I was 12 years old, my family went on a cruise where I met and became fast friends with a 13-year-old girl. Let’s call her Jane.
Jane was effortlessly cool. She drew in both kids and adults. And when I heard my mom call her fearless, I decided I wanted to be fearless, too.
I wouldn’t say I was especially fearful before that. But I was a little on the shy side and I hated being described that way. It was the word people always used when talking about my dad and I wanted to be more like my mom.
I decided that I would be fearless, too.
Without her knowing it, Jane was my teacher for the two weeks of that cruise. We ran around that boat, playing ping pong, going to the movie screenings and even dating two brothers (12-year old dating, which is to say we called it dating but all we did was talk about how we liked them and they liked us and play ping pong against them).
By the time the boat pulled up to shore, I had made my transition.
Except that it wasn’t a complete 180. While I believe I am a natural extrovert and part of what happened on that trip was me coming into myself, I still had many moments of extreme shyness and insecurity—times when I felt nearly paralyzed by social anxiety. I learned to push through those times. I would curl my toes in my shoes until it passed. While it didn’t happen a lot, it happened.
And then I discovered drinking.
I will never forget the magical night when I discovered that alcohol could make me into the fearless person I’d always wanted to be. I was a freshman in high school and my friends and I were at a party at a senior’s house. As I drank a beer, the guy who was the dictionary definition of Big Man on Campus—a guy I considered far more Greek God than high school senior—walked in. Let’s call him Matt.
Everyone was in love with Matt. When Matt played soccer, the entire female school body would sit on the sidelines and sigh that his legs were like works of art. It was a widely established fact that being around Matt meant losing the ability to speak.
But when Matt walked by me a few minutes later, I followed him to where he was waiting in line for the bathroom.
“I have Matt + Anna written on my binder,” I announced by way of introduction. I didn’t think about the potential repercussions of making this (entirely true of course) confession could be or what he might say. The words were just there.
He smiled. “That’s funny,” he responded. “I have it written on my binder, too.”
And that’s when I knew it: alcohol not only made me who I wanted to be but also got me everything I wanted.
(To be clear, I never really “got” Matt—he had an equally perfect senior girlfriend—but that night was the beginning of an outrageously flirtatious friendship. Unfortunately, I could only participate in it at parties; when he tried to talk to me at school, in the clear sober light of day, I could only utter monosyllabically in his presence.)
I moved on, of course, from Matt. While my other high school relationships with boys were not that dramatic, from that point forward, they always involved drinking. When I was drinking, I could be Jane: the girl who was fearless without having had to decide to be that way.
The longer I’m sober, the more I see that the way alcohol removed my social fears is what I liked the most about it. I could be the cool girl without effort, without having to worry about what I said, without picking at my cuticles to alleviate my anxiety. I was only semi conscious of this particular attribute of drinking, though I do remember thinking, if I ever met a guy I liked during the day, that I wished I could meet him at night. My nighttime self, I told myself, was much better than my daytime one.
I honestly didn’t think of it as my drunk self and sober self. My “nighttime self” sounded much better in my mind. (It still does.)
As anyone who gets sober after having spent most of his or her life drinking can attest, the original process is terrifying. I didn’t admit to myself I was scared because I told myself I wasn’t scared, let alone terrified, of anything. I’d driven to the hood to buy coke from Mexican gangsters. I’d snorted heroin and allowed a photographer in Paris to take nude photographs of me. (Luckily, the dude didn’t know what the Internet was.) Scared? Please.
Without realizing it, I’d internalized the idea that I was not allowed to feel fear so instead it came up as other things: either that social anxiety or anger and sadness. At the beginning of sobriety, it was all anger and sadness. When that passed—when I actually began to be grateful to be out of the apartment where I’d spent years doing coke by myself—the fear morphed into social anxiety. I started going to meetings but I’d arrive late and leave early so I didn’t have to deal with how scared I was of all the people there.
Then, after a slip when I was roughly six-and-a-half months sober, my sponsor suggested that I get truly invested in the program and start making friends in the rooms. I resented that. I told her I wasn’t scared and reminded her that she was my friend. All she said was, “I’m your sponsor.”
The next day at a meeting, fighting every instinct in me, I turned to a girl sitting next to me and introduced myself. She was friendly, not intimidating at all, and she ended up inviting me out with her friends for that night. I quickly fell in with her group and suddenly, I was more than dipping my toe in social sobriety; I was going out all the time and in many ways more social than I’d ever been. In most ways, this was glorious; I’d spent the previous few years holed up in my apartment with only cats and cocaine for company. But in retrospect there were many nights when I was fighting fear and insecurity. Feelings were still very new to me and cigarettes and Red Bull could only do so much to shroud them.
It’s now a decade-and-a-half later, that social fear is almost entirely gone and I can’t even begin to list the fears I’ve conquered, from rappelling down buildings to going on live TV to speaking in front of auditoriums to publishing books. I’m not sure when the terror disintegrated but everything I know how to do I learned in recovery. Through that, the personality I craved as a kid has revealed itself to be a part of me.
Photo courtesy of the author