We had just started to speed up again after the highway had narrowed to one lane for construction. The air was still warm outside, the last week of August, and Magda and I were headed to the South shore for a few days. My emotions were bottomed out, it felt as if I had been emptied of serotonin and every now and then tears that I could not control would roll down my face. I was still hungover from my birthday two nights before and was a complete wreck. My mind seesawed nauseatingly between self-loathing and the horrific knowledge that I had to stop, probably forever. I had to.
“You just have to stop. Stop after you’ve had a few. Before you get drunk,” Magda said gently, smiling at me. I was a pretty fun drunk most of the time. Most people in my life didn’t know that I struggled, had been struggling, with the way I drank, or how I spent worried mornings in the shower, resolving not to drink that night, only to see 4:00p.m. roll around and know that I would be headed to the liquor store.
“That’s the thing,” I croaked, my voice breaking a bit as I struggled the words out from a pinched esophagus. “I can’t.”
I’ve never been able to stop. I don’t even understand stopping. Never, not once in my life, have I been drinking and wanted to stop drinking. I would sometimes, begrudgingly, if I had an exam the next day, or really couldn’t miss work, but it was never what my instinct was. My instinct, the voice in my head, never, ever once wanted to stop drinking. If given the option, I wanted to drink until I was done, which was usually when I had blacked out or passed out. I always made it home, or to someone’s bed, at the very least.
By the end of my drinking days, I kept hard liquor in the house. Cheap blended scotch or whiskey, gin, or sometimes vodka. I preferred the whiskey or gin and told myself I really only liked vodka in caesars. That is, of course, unless there was only vodka available. Then I would drink vodka with soda water and lemon, in a tall glass filled with ice. Unless there wasn’t soda water or lemon or ice. Then I would just do shots by myself, after coming home from the bar late at night or sauntering home in the early evening twilight from happy hour with friends. It wasn’t often that I did shots, because that kind of behaviour perforated the denial I had cloaked myself in. A nightcap served to yourself as a carefully prepared cocktail is one thing. ‘It’s dignified,’ I liked to think. A shot alone is another thing altogether.
I can feel the denial, which I relied on for 20 years to keep me well into the sauce, creeping in even now. ‘I often could just have a few,’ my brain tells me, as I type. That may even be true. I can barely remember now. What I do know is that a few is not generally what I wanted. I remember in my mid-twenties, when I was living with a friend, I would marvel as she poured herself one drink and would sip it after dinner as we watched tv. ‘Eventually I will learn to drink like that,’ I thought, as I poured myself my third beer. In more recent years, I would watch as my dad had one beer after Jeopardy or just one in the afternoon after doing yard work and before falling asleep in the recliner for a spell during the hottest part of the day. It was such a confounding thing to me. I studied the people in my life that could put it down after having enough. I watched as their definition of ‘enough’ moved from just one today to none tomorrow to maybe 4 or 5 or more at this wedding and then back to none. ‘But I could also have just one or none,’ denial says to me. And it’s true. I could. It’s just that once I started drinking, I never really knew what was going to happen. Would it be one tonight or would it be the more likely scenario of one after work and then, well, just one more while I cook supper, and then a digestif after dinner, and then, well, obviously a nightcap or two and a promise to be in bed by 10pm or then, 11pm, at the latest. It was waking up in the mornings reluctantly, willing the shower to revive me, dreading the day and wondering, at the periphery of my consciousness where I keep the things I am most afraid of, ‘why does this keep happening?’.
I sometimes held myself back in the interest of propriety, so that I wouldn’t be inappropriately drunk in front of people, or to prove to myself that I really wasn’t an alcoholic. ‘I mean, look at my restraint!’ I thought happily as I cooked supper for my family on a Sunday, cracking open a second drink only after 4pm, like an ordinary, responsible adult. I paid my rent, my car insurance. I hadn’t destroyed my relationships. I counted and recounted the myriad of reasons I definitely did not, absolutely could not possibly, have a problem with alcohol.
My birthday has rolled around again, as they do. My last birthday was my last night drinking, my last night in active addiction, the last time I would have to live in a divided brain, shooting back and forth between, ‘I want to drink’ and desperately wanting to stop, fearing what would happen in either scenario.
Right now, instead of being preoccupied with that indecision, I am reading four books: one written by Buddhist monks about how to raise a puppy, one a sobriety memoir, another Buddhist teaching me about the present moment, and a novel by my favourite author. I woke up this morning like I do every morning now: with a clear head. There is no longer any fear tucked in the bottom corner of my heart, no moments completely seized by unanchored anxiety over what I may have done or said, or for no real reason at all. I know I can trust myself. I let the cat in and give him a fresh bowl of food and scratch the top of his hard, little head. I calm myself with a short yoga practice or I meditate or I go for a walk or run. I make a cup of coffee, pouring in the cream slowly and watching its gentle ripple to the edges of a mug lovingly made by a friend who is a potter. I think about all of the changes that I’ve gone through in the past year. One year ago today this version of me felt impossible. The thing I feared the most – that everything would change – happened. I am extraordinarily grateful that it did.