I’ve had a lot of relationships, and although I really do want to write about all of them, there’s one in particular that inspired me to begin writing in the first place. More specifically, it was the end of my longest relationship that allowed me to remember that I’ve always thought of “writer” as what I hoped to end up being, and to begin to become that person.
Part of what had been keeping me from telling the whole story is the feeling that I had to have it all straight before I could write it down, but I’ve finally started to figure out that writing is how I understand myself, and that, as Melissa Febos puts it in Body Work, all that we need to begin is the “change of heart. A shift forward, or away, or perhaps a desire to return to some truer version of myself.”
The relationship that I’m talking about is not with a person — it’s with alcohol. I say relationship because that really is the right way to think about it. A love story that ended over four years ago, resulting in a separation. Like any relationship, there’s more to it than we used to be together, and now we’re not, although if you want the short answer, that does pretty much sum it up.
What’s most important is that I’m not the same person that I was when we were together — for so very, very long. As is often the case, it was me who changed first, and that led to the end of the relationship, more than the other way around.
I was a steady drinker from junior high school into my late forties, at which time I went overnight from drinking every day to only very rarely—and then, not at all. It did take me thirty-five years to get there, but it was an easy quit when it actually happened. What happened for me was not the result of any particular program, nor through the dutiful application of willpower — it came over me quite suddenly, as a result of internal changes that had been in progress for at least a decade.
One night at home alone, enjoying my usual palliative— a couple of tequila cocktails and a bottle of one of those outstanding new-school natural wines — for the creeping dread that was doing its best to return to lodge, yet again, in my consciousness, a long-standing truth came to the surface, like a bubble breaking the surface of a murky midwestern lake. In that moment, I saw that alcohol itself was the only thing left that was keeping me tethered to my recurring experience with depression. I’d already changed so many other things about how I was living, and so it was becoming more and more rare, but it did come back now and then, and I was still vexed as to why. It had never really occurred to me before that drinking alcohol and depression could be so closely connected, but right then in a flash, it finally became clear to me that everything else in my life actually was OK, and that it was alcohol that kept trying to drag me back into that dark water.
All of the changes that I’d already made to my life at that point to become more of who I wanted be — and to become less depressed — had…worked! I had become a different person, and that person no longer had the time or energy for drinking. Drinking was an old habit, something that I had enjoyed for a very time, but I wasn’t enjoying it any longer. After that realization, my interest in alcohol largely disappeared — and it happened overnight. It was just like waking up next to someone that you feel no longer connected to, and realizing — this has already been over for a while.
I was driving back from a rather perfect weekend in Mendocino the other day and it occurred to me as it does once in a while how great it feels to be my full self every single day, right from when I wake up. I’ve had so many morning-afters that, still, when when I wake up a little earlier than I’d like, my heart rate goes up, my body remembering with a clamoring anxiety the feeling of opening my eyes to a head-full of shards, bleary, world-too-bright, oh please just let me go back to sleep— and then I have this huge sense of relief and gratitude that it was just my memory replaying how it was so often in the past. Now, instead, I blink twice, and there’s no headache, no blurred vision, no sick feeling, no weakness or desperate sloth. Instead, the world begins bright, every single morning. It’s a shock for a minute — and then —it’s perfect.
In the moments after those momentary morning panics, I feel the beauty and the peace that I didn’t feel enough of as a kid. I just didn’t get that into me then, and so now that I know what it feels like, I’ll take that sweetness a thousand times over any kind of drink the night before. I need that peace and beauty. I need it to have my head straight. I need it for my sanity.
That said, I’m still more anxious than I’d like to be, and I can feel more acutely the pain that drove me to what I now know as addictive behavior in the first place. I was addicted to alcohol for a very long time, as I have been in varying degrees to porn, shopping, sex, adrenaline, social media, gambling — call it ‘investing’ if you like — even travel. These addictions are all attempts to compensate for a lack of care, connection and identity that I’ve felt since my early years.
I do still find myself trying to escape just being me. For so much of my life, all that talk about enjoying ‘every day like it’s your last’ just made no sense to me. I fully believed that the idea of any lasting, joyful satisfaction at just being alive could only be propaganda spread around by members of some brainwashed cult. Having unburdened my sensorium from a constant bath of cortical depressants, I do actually — I swear! — feel pretty damn good a fair bit of the time! It turns out that the pain of not being is even greater than the suffering that I was so often trying to escape.
Sometimes it even seems true to say that I no longer suffer from depression, although that heavy pattern is still wired so deeply into me that while it can disappear for days and weeks, I can also find myself back there again, floating on the surface of the black, poking at it like a massive, oily blob, knowing that if I stay there too long it will swallow me back inside. That darkness feels like forever — and it serves me well, in that when I do, now and then, think back to that shimmering wall of bar-back bottles, I’m reminded straight away of the succubus that serves the drinks, and my suffering at her hands, and that’s enough to keep me well away.
This is about the point where I figure you want to ask, “so, how did you stop?”
It’s not quite so simple.
I didn’t stop like never again, straight edge, one-hundred-percent sober. I stopped drinking every day. I stopped drinking by default. I stopped drinking, with some exceptions. There are months that go by when I don’t drink at all, and then there’s a couple of weeks in Europe where I had some wine with dinner most nights — and then felt that desire slip away entirely as I boarded my flight in Rome on my way back to San Francisco.
I don’t count years or months or days—and, even as I write that, I imagine that you’re doubting my resolve. Some of you are thinking, well, buddy, you didn’t really stop — and when you have a problem, you have to stop. You can’t be mostly sober. You have a problem, and you can’t expect to fix it by half measures. You gotta stick to the program. You have to be strong! You have to use your willpower. I’m imagining that you’re imagining that like so many other lifelong drinkers you’ve read about or known, I get on the wagon and then fall off the back in a heap of fumes and circling flies, the half-pint flask sticking out of my back pocket. You imagine that, unless I just stop, I will continually regress to my frequent-and-heavy drinking past, and then fight my way back to short-lived sobriety, only to repeat the cycle again. I imagine that you think that I’ve deluded myself. That I haven’t really changed.
You know what—I’ll stop trying to think for you.
It’s worth noting here that the idea that we’ve been attached to for the last century or so — that only some people can become addicted to alcohol, and that the only cure for that compulsive attachment is to never drink again — is just straight-up untrue. We all have the potential for addiction within us, and habits, even deeply wired and chemically-enhanced habits, are, for many people, easier to change than we’ve come to believe. There are many people who drink less-than-catastrophically and still much more than they would like, and there are also many people who successfully stop drinking or otherwise heal their relationship with alcohol without necessarily abstaining entirely, or forever. There are many ways to change, and many people make all sorts of changes, and it’s not necessarily all that difficult.
It’s also true, however, that as I work to explain how all of this is true — and not just for me — and that I like having the freedom to choose, I don’t need that freedom to choose at any time as much as the much greater freedom of not having to choose. Just about every time I do drink any alcohol, I’m reminded that I no longer enjoy the actual effects. I do like the taste of beer and wine, and pretty much all sorts of liquor too — and the feeling of the first few seconds or minutes. After twenty minutes or so though, the effects become negative, even from just one glass of wine. I know full well, and from years of my own hard-won experience, that adding alcohol doesn’t add anything to my quality of life. I’ve already tasted plenty of delicious wines and beers — so many! — and I don’t need to try anything else just to see there might be something new and different enough to justify the nasty side effects.
I can imagine coming to the point, perhaps very soon, where I do draw a hard line and step across. Part of my resistance to doing that has been my long-standing commitment to making my own way in the world, and yet it’s become clear to me recently that if I insist on following no one at all, it’s hard to get much of anywhere.
All of that gets back to why I’m telling the story again right now. As a friend said to me the other night: I’m still in it — and that’s true. I’m still digesting this chapter of my life. As most truths are, it’s a little complicated—and—all that really matters is that I did have a change of heart. I set a boundary, as we so often fail to do in relationships. I took control, and I did it in a way that emerged from my own development as a person. As I found my way more and more towards myself, I found myself less and less interested in drinking.
That change is still happening — and I know that I don’t have to do anything else to earn the right to tell the story. So, here it is.
. . .
Caroline Knapp, Alcohol, A Love Story.
Mary Carr, Lit.
Johann Hari, Lost Connections.
Annie Grace, This Naked Mind.
This post was previously published on Decide Nothing.
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