Because it’s an anniversary.
23 years ago today, I walked into a treatment center for drug and alcohol addiction in Northern California, clutching a pillow and the few shreds of dignity I had left. I walked out four weeks later, clean, sober, and free.
I hear a lot of people say they were born alcoholic. I don’t know about that. I just know that from the first time I drank at about age 15, I liked it. I didn’t drink very often, at least not then, but always enjoyed it when I did. I liked the fuzzy headed feeling. I liked how alcohol changed my perception of myself, turned my short ordinary plain-Jane self into someone tall, beautiful and dazzling.
I was a good kid, the oldest of three, brought up by parents who were married to each other — they’re still married, in fact. I went to church, sang in the choir, joined in youth group activities, went on mission trips. I made mostly As in school, twirled a flag on the pep squad, competed on the varsity gymnastics team, graduated near the top of my high school class, and was accepted at an exclusive private college in southern California.
This isn’t to say our family life was untroubled. Far from it. My sister and I fought constantly. Money was always tight. My parents did their best, but they didn’t know what to do with a kid like me, one who liked science and art and books and history, one who was filled with the need to be noticed. All I wanted was a little of their attention. I knew they loved me, but they, especially my father, were distant and unsupportive of the things I was most interested in, impractical things like music and singing and dance. And we had secrets that we didn’t talk about.
At any rate, I was in the final weeks of my senior year, more than ready to leave home and attend that exclusive private college, when my perfectly-planned life derailed. The financial aid everyone told me I would get did not come through, and my parents couldn’t afford to foot the extra tuition costs. I allowed myself to be talked out of taking student loans and decided to delay college for a year and work instead. To save money, you know. Oh, the stupid choices we make when we’re 17.
So. I went to work full time at a local department store. And I started dating. I rarely dated in high school — too busy with the books and the pep squad and church activities — but after graduation was a different story. A few months after my 18th birthday, I fell in love. With a bad boy. Who drank and smoked dope and drove a fast car. My parents hated him. I thought he was the most handsome fellow in the world. Unfortunately, he had a live-in girlfriend, so we had to sneak around. I moved out of my parents’ home and became roommates with two of his friends. We turned our little coastal town into our own Peyton Place, at least among a certain age group.
Two broken engagements (only one of them mine) and a broken heart later, I gave up on the idea of that southern California college — I had never managed to save the money, anyway — and moved north to the Bay Area. I was 19. It was there I discovered I had a talent for theater. I started acting and working backstage at every community theater within a reasonable driving distance. I learned how to party and smoke dope and put powder up my nose with a bunch of other theater folk. But it was still under control. I still got up and went to work every day. I couldn’t manage to fit classes at the local junior college into the work and party schedule though.
It’s funny how, starting at about this point in my life, many of my major decisions or courses of action were connected in some fashion to a man. I moved to the Bay Area to get away from my first love. I switched shifts at my job to avoid the next fellow after we broke up. And I started drinking heavily after the end of a two-plus year relationship with someone I had thought would become my husband. I was 23. This time, the drinking affected my work. I called in sick a lot. I was late. I was grouchy and rude to customers. I quit before I could get fired.
By this time, my folks had moved north as well. I moved in with them because I couldn’t afford to live on my own. And for the next six years I moved in and out, in and out. I’d get a decent job, save some money, get my own place, get evicted because buying booze was more important than paying the rent, move back home, and start the cycle over. I got drunk every single day for those six years. I lost a car, I lost friends, I lost jobs. One night, while babysitting my infant nephew, I passed out with a lit cigarette in my hand. If the couch had not been fairly new with the flame-retardant self-snuffing cushions, the house would have gone up in flames, taking me and my sister’s son with it. I never knew it happened until late the next day when my mother dragged me out of bed to show me the charred arm of the sofa.
I could tell you story after story about poor choices: stupid decisions, countless men, near-brushes with death, humiliating experience after humiliating experience. I could tell you about the day I finally remembered that secret we didn’t discuss: the one about my grandfather who liked little girls. It all comes down to one fact: I did anything necessary for me to get that next drink.
In July of 1991 I was back living with my folks again. I was 29 years old. I had a part time job as assistant manager at a little bookstore, working for a friend. Every night when I left work, I stopped at a gas station, a different one each time, and picked up two sixpacks of beer, a fresh pack of cigarettes and a bag of ice. I had a little plastic tub in my car. I put the ice in the tub, the beer in the ice, and set off for one of the numerous back country roads near my parents’ home. Once there, I’d find a dark place to park, pull out the flashlight and my trashy historical romance, and sit there, drinking, reading and smoking until all the beer was gone, usually about 1:00 AM. Then I’d drive home and let myself in and go to bed. This way, my folks wouldn’t know how much I drank.
One day, my mother told me she knew I was drinking. And she told me I had two choices: go to treatment or find somewhere else to live. I wasn’t prepared to live in my car, so I told her I’d go to treatment. But ooooh, I did not want to do that. I didn’t want to face myself. And the truth is, if I’d had even one person left that I could call who I thought would take me in, I’d have gone there instead. But there was no one.
And so, on July 26, 1991, I took my own pillow with me to the treatment center. I must have been a sight, standing there in the lobby, clutching my pillow and looking around with wild, scared eyes, like I’d been brought to the seventh circle of hell. How the staff must have laughed at me later. But I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep on one of those institutional pillows, so I had my own. That was a comfort.
I was not unaware of the existence of Alcoholics Anonymous. I had even been to a meeting once, about three or four years prior. The people there scared the crap out of me; they were so happy about being alcoholic! I decided I didn’t have a problem after all, and vowed I was never going back. And naturally, the first place I was taken after entering treatment was an AA meeting.
Funny thing, though. This time, I listened instead of judging. I empathized instead of looking for the ways I was different. And I found out a lot of people drank like I did, secretly, ashamedly, telling themselves this was normal behavior and everyone behaved this way when they drank. Those people at the meetings were friendly, and concerned, and genuinely wanted to help. They told me the truth in a language I recognized. They understood me. And they paid attention to me. I felt — validated. And wanted. And welcomed. I can’t remember ever really feeling like that before walking through the doors of Alcoholics Anonymous. They loved me, and they didn’t even know me.
It’s been like that throughout the years I’ve been sober. I’ve done stupid stupid things in sobriety — again, mostly man-oriented — and come closer to suicide than I ever had in my drinking days. Without the numbness that self-medicating with alcohol provided, I had to face my demons. I had to talk about being molested as a child. I had to talk about that catastrophically detrimental year-long affair with Mr.Married. I had to break down and bawl in meetings. But the love of the fellowship always picked me up, sometimes literally. I remember sitting in a meeting one night, five-plus years sober and at my lowest emotional ebb, talking about making the decision NOT to kill myself the previous night and breaking down in the middle of a sentence. A man at the meeting left his chair, crossed the room, sat down next to me on the couch and put me on his lap, and rocked me like I was a child. That’s love.
No one told me staying sober would be easy. And, at first, it wasn’t. I struggled. I didn’t drink, but I wanted to. Oh, how I wanted to. Still, slowly, gradually, incrementally, that desire decreased; the thought came less and less often…and for the last several years, when trouble has arisen, getting drunk hasn’t crossed my mind. Although that option is always available, I have so many other choices to make, so many other directions to go, so many other steps to follow — drinking is so far down the list it’s not even a contender.
The best thing about being sober? It led me back to God. I had abandoned the church at about age 19. During those ten years of drinking, I would attend church occasionally, but never felt like I belonged. I was too dirty, too sinful, too horrible a person for God to ever love or forgive. AA taught me my God was too small. I came to understand a different concept of God, a truer concept, and this concept has become the rock solid foundation of my life: Nothing in the world will ever make God stop loving me. Nothing. Not ever. I learned that forgiveness comes when I let go of the hurt or the shame. I learned to love and accept love. And that lesson brought me my beloved husband.
The youngest members of my family have never known their Auntie as a drunk. My husband has never known me as a drunk — in fact, sometimes I think he doesn’t quite believe my drinking was ever really that bad. My parents and sister don’t watch me out of the corners of their eyes; my brother has no qualms about leaving me in charge of his children. I’ve had the same employer for almost 20 years, the same husband for more than 12 years; we live in a beautiful house in a beautiful neighborhood; I drive a convertible (!); we have no debt other than the house and car notes; I wake up each day clearheaded, bright-eyed, and ready to face the world.
Best of all, deep in my heart lies the rock-solid certainty that God loves me. He always had, even when I had convinced myself otherwise. That gift alone makes the journey worthwhile. With the gift of sobriety as well, I am truly blessed and eternally grateful.
The photographs scattered throughout this blog entry are the gifts that sobriety brought.