This post was originally published on August 13, 2014.
It was March of 2008 and I was in Japan with my then husband, vacationing away from our two kids. We had gone to see the Red Sox start their season for the first time ever at the Tokyo Dome. I had been pretending to be excited about baseball for so long, I thought I actually was. The hometown crowd was exceptionally quiet and well-behaved, clapping politely when their team made a run. At the last game I had been to in the United States, the people behind us were spitting beer at each other.
The next day after seeing all the games, we headed to an authentic Japanese guesthouse, complete with pullout Tatami mats to sleep on, unidentifiable food objects and hot springs. It was the first time I had left my two and three-year old kids for five days and I attributed my irritability to that. The country was beautiful—it was March so the cherry blossoms were in bloom, and the people were wonderful. Why was I not having a good time?
That night we dined on something that may have contained octopus, and my husband rebelled. He didn’t usually eat anything unless it was drenched in ketchup. He even ate carrots with ketchup—but hey, that’s love, it makes you put up with disgusting traits for the cuddles.
I had been dry for a few months since my most recent binge one night after a play at my theater company. I rarely went out with my cast mates, so when I did, they always knew there would be trouble—of the fun kind. I was usually high on adrenaline anyway, because it was easier to be the “party” version of myself than my actual self, so who knew how much of my behavior could be attributed to that? I had poured back the worst kind of vodka, even while the artistic director had warned me not to.
“That’s cheap vodka; it will give you a hangover.”
“What?” I had slurred. “Who cares?”
And now we were in our rice paper room halfway across the world, and I had eaten the weird food that my husband didn’t want to eat but was too polite to ask for alternatives for, and here was the plum sake. He wasn’t much of a drinker, and to this day doesn’t believe I had a problem either. He had only seen me drunk once in the entire 10 years of our relationship at that point. He passed me the glass and I took a sip. I felt the ecstatic glow of the sweet burn on my tongue and, not knowing it was the last drink I would ever take, passed it back to him.
“Take it, it’s too good.”
Almost six months later, I still hadn’t taken another drink, and had been attending Alanon meetings. I seemed to be improving from that program, not feeling as enmeshed with my children, not catastrophizing as much, but I was still consistently thinking about suicide as a viable option, with no reason why. In September we went to Sea World with the kids. Both of them threw epic tantrums, the last one resulting in my carrying the giant three-year old in my arms as he struggled and writhed and screamed against me all the way to the hotel. Something in me snapped, and while my husband took them swimming in the hotel pool, I went to lunch by myself.
I stared at the menu, considering my options. I had never identified as an alcoholic, I just “didn’t drink.” I reasoned that all you had to do was not drink, and then you would never get drunk and there would never be any of the problems that could result from that—like bad boy decisions, embarrassing obnoxiousness and sometimes throwing up in your hair. And suddenly I thought, “Why not? Why shouldn’t I order a glass of champagne?” And in that instant I knew that if I ordered one glass of champagne, I would not stop drinking, not then or ever—I would drink every day because I had no reason not to. I had lost the super-power to control my drinking, and for some reason I knew it down to my bones. The switch had flipped, and it was over.
I had been hearing about something called a “dry drunk” in Alanon, though the information seemed to float up at me in waves. I’d hear phrases about “white knuckling” and “restless, irritable and discontent” before I would sink back into wondering why I was not more famous. I had completed Steps 1 and 2 in Alanon but for some reason was unable to get through Step 3. I just couldn’t turn it over, even though I had already quit smoking through Nicotine Anonymous. I could not let go, as there was something I was controlling and managing that would not stay in check without my doing so. In that moment at Sea World I saw clearly what I was, and thank God I had enough Alanon under my belt, and enough motivation to want to be sober for my bratty kids, to go to my first AA meeting the next night, where I finally identified as an alcoholic.
A few weeks later, I was able to take my very first six-month chip in AA. I no longer wanted to die, but I was dying for a drink, and I felt that way for the entire first year of my sobriety. I longed for the taste of any and all alcohol, and remembered with euphoria the obliteration I felt with weed, mourning the fact that I hadn’t gotten more shitfaced in the last 20 years. I had never tried heroin, why oh why had I never tried heroin? Was I really done? Some of these drugs hadn’t even been around then, why did I have to miss out on crack growing up in Australia? It just wasn’t fair.
Then that fell away, and eventually so did the marriage, and six-and-a-quarter years later. I still haven’t had a drink or a drug, and for that I am extremely grateful. And yet when I stopped drinking officially, when I closed that “I can still get wasted” escape hatch, paradoxically my life got worse. Right when I got truly sober was when I began to see serious problems in my marriage, and with life in general—that is, right when a regular person could have really used a drink.
They say the difference between an alcoholic and someone with a drinking problem is that when someone who has a problem stops drinking, their life gets better. When an alcoholic stops drinking, that’s when their real problems start. For decades, I was an alcoholic without a drinking problem; I had a problem for which there was no solution, an itch I couldn’t scratch, and I would not trade that time for even the worst moments I have experienced sober.
Sometimes when you are knitting, you look back and realize that at some point when you weren’t concentrating, you messed up and either dropped a stitch, or knitted two in one, or used the wrong stitch altogether. Then you have to take the painful step of removing the needles, and pulling at the thread to unravel (sometimes) days of work, and figure out where you went wrong. It is discouraging but necessary, and may also be the reason I don’t knit anymore.
AA made me pull that loose thread and watch my entire life as I knew it unravel, but slowly the needles were cast back in place and I got to make something new, something that may not have been what I originally intended, but at least a garment that might be a better fit. The life I have now is more authentic because of my sobriety. It may not be everything I want or think I’m entitled to, and that right there should tell you I’m a real alcoholic. The life I have now fits me better than my old life, which had gaping holes in the sides I was attempting to cover with gaffer tape and tie together with string. As they talk about in the rooms, I can wear my sobriety like a loose-fitting cloak, and most days, it looks fabulous.