At the age of 28, my biggest concern going home for the first time as a sober adult was my tattoos. When my sister and I were in high school, our parents expressed how distasteful tattoos and facial piercings were to them and to our future employers. This scared the shit out of me all through my teenage years.
Approximately zero minutes after I moved out of the house to go to college, I promptly ignored my parents’ warnings with reckless abandon. First came the nose ring, then several ear piercings and finally, the barrage of highly visible tattoos. I managed to cover up my arm tattoos in the oppressively muggy Miami heat two Christmases ago, but my alcoholism proved to be much more difficult to conceal. I kept looking over my shoulder, making sure my mother would not catch a glimpse of my Erte-designed, art-deco inspired tattoo or the amount of wine and vodka I drank. I couldn’t handle the imminence of her disapproval. I was probably the least inconspicuous person there ever was, but I tried. I tied one on pretty well that night, accidentally moving my sleeve so that my tattoos were in full view. My mother was kind enough to ignore my attempts at secrecy then, just like she was years back when I filled up her almost-empty Chardonnay bottle with water while she pretended not to notice.
I began the Christmas trip of 2013 to Miami—where my sister and her husband lived—by demanding an apology from her for us never seeing each other. We had a tiff, then I insisted on us drinking our feelings with vodka and seltzer at 2 pm. We got along swimmingly after that. My family never concerned themselves much with drinking, except on some holidays. I rarely saw my father drink, unless it was a touch of red wine at dinner. The only time I saw my father drunk (if you could call it that) was when he ordered one Dos Equis at our favorite Mexican restaurant. He spoke French to our waiter to be cheeky and he had a cute blush to his face. The waiter spoke English and Spanish, so my father got a good chuckle out of that, all to himself. My mother drank a glass of wine here or there, but never enough to intoxicate her. It astounds me that one bottle of wine lasted my parents weeks, if they even finished it. My sister makes it through about two drinks of any kind before she retires to a couch or bed to take a big nap. How did I, who could put back at least one bottle of wine myself, come from a family of such lightweights?
I keep thinking of this great bumper sticker/t-shirt/button idea that would read “I came to California for a job and all I got was my sobriety.” This would be a bestseller, no? It is true that I moved to California for a very specific purpose: to follow through on a job I thought I wanted. The bonus in this grand plan was the 3,000 miles separating me from anyone who knew me on the East Coast, especially my family. The very second my West bound plane touched down in Ontario, California, I felt as though I was in a league of my own. I had one carry-on and one checked bag with me because I cannot be bothered with anything that threatens inconvenience. It is appropriate to note here that for a person with so much emotional baggage, I travel lightly.
Three years into my California residency, I found myself sober and ready to see my family after a very difficult year. I flew to Philadelphia to meet my sister and brother-in-law, then made my way to Virginia with my mother on a road trip. I saved my last three amends until I could be home with my family. The great trifecta of sorries lay before me: my mother, my sister and my deceased father. I couldn’t wait to make amends with my sister, so I did that the second we got a minute alone. I did the same thing with my mother on our road trip from Philadelphia to Virginia. The last amends to my father took place on our charming Southern porch, where I read aloud a letter I wrote him seven months into sobriety. I rocked on our porch swing and meditated to a picture of him and me playing the piano when I was a toddler. The amends were quiet and peaceful. The drama of remembering family in my fourth step melted away with the last vestiges of my ninth step.
Alas, alcoholism remains no matter where I am. And because I am an alcoholic, I notice when booze is around. Many times when I grocery shop, I think to myself as I pass the alcohol isle, “Hello, old friend. I am grateful not to need you anymore.”At this moment, I have been home for one week, including a whopping total of two encounters with family drinking and not one grocery store internal monologue. My mother, sister and brother-in-law drank one beer each last week at dinner. My mother, aunt and family friend drank one glass of wine each a couple of days ago. In one night as an active alcoholic, I could have drank more than the amount of alcohol five people drank over two days’ time. I did the math; counting other people’s drinks instead of mine soothed me. I have attended four AA meetings in a week at Petersburg and Hopewell, both small country towns. The average age at these meetings is something like 65 years old. Welcome to Virginia: just south of the Mason-Dixon Line, home to the Robert E. Lee Shrine off of I-95 and the original Heart of the Confederacy. Good thing I learned about “principles before personalities” back in California.
Ironically, home is a far cry from where I’ve been. I lived at this same house for six years, though it feels like my first stay. The levels of constancy and peace here are humbling. My family has shown nothing but respect for my decision to live a sober life. My mother accidentally left her (full) glass of wine sitting near the kitchen sink, so I asked if she minded if I poured it out. She apologized profusely, saying she knew she didn’t want to drink in front of me. I thought it was really sweet of her to consider my feelings while I stayed in her home. I don’t know if it was the nostalgia or the jet lag, but my experience home for the first time sober has been glorious in its subtlety and sublime in its simplicity. I came home on a warpath to better myself. What I have come away with is an opportunity to be present as a reinstated member of my family. As it turns out, my family barely noticed my tattoos.