Science Is Real

When I first started experimenting with sobriety in 2014, I didn’t know anybody in recovery. I’d heard of Alcoholics Anonymous, of course, but I knew it wasn’t for me. Did I have a problem with drinking? Sure. Okay, definitely, but I wasn’t an alcoholic. How could I be? I wasn’t even thirty years old, and my drinking hadn’t cost me anything yet. Okay, my self-esteem was non-existent and my sanity was unraveling, but I had a prestigious job and a house and a car and a husband and a baby. Still, my drinking made me uncomfortable enough that I was spending a lot of time online taking quizzes to figure out if I was addicted to alcohol, reading blogs and lurking in forums for people trying to quit booze, and trying to figure out if the concept of “recovery” even applied to someone like me.

My research turned into to rubbernecking when, in late 2014, an internet-famous mom-blogger relapsed after being sober for a number of years. Her downfall was public and dramatic, as she took to Twitter to broadcast her bottoming out in real time. If you’re anything like me, you know it goes without saying: I am a magnet for train wrecks. People who haven’t struggled with substance use and abuse are drawn to messy women because they make them feel better about themselves; I clock these women because I see myself in them. I was a chaos engine, too. This particular writer’s story hooked me because she relapsed on cough syrup, which, of course, was the first drug I ever took. She was after a different active ingredient (DXM, I think) than the one I chased, which was the codeine that slid down my throat and made long days teenager in the sprawling Phoenix suburbs languorous instead of stupefyingly boring, but it didn’t matter. Other people watching this woman–mostly in gossip forums dedicated to scrutinizing and tearing apart bloggers and other online influencers–were seriously concerned about her. Seeing other people take this woman’s relapse with an over-the-counter drug more commonly abused by teens seriously confirmed something I already knew about my NyQuil-swilling, pill-popping self: I was an addict too. I started reading this person’s writing obsessively, looking for more clues about myself, trying to figure out exactly what this sickness was, and how I might get better.

It was at this point that I stumbled on sobriety evangelist’s Holly Whitaker’s manifesto. Today, Whitaker’s digital footprint is significant: she is an author, the founder of an online recovery platform and website, and one of the leaders of a popular sobriety movement. Back then, all I knew was that she had a blog that caught me like one of the the sticky glue traps for the scorpions in my parents’ garage. Whitaker was the first person to tell me I didn’t need to cross some invisible threshold that would tell me that the clock had run out on my relationship with booze. Her writing was the first I found that challenged the notion that moderate drinking should be the goal, and sobriety the sad consolation prize. Sobriety, according to Whitaker, was a privilege and right, and the life I really wanted was just over the other side. Whitaker’s message was notably out of sync with twelve-step-based recovery modalities that dominated my Google search results. She rejected the idea that a person needs to hit rock bottom, that there are people who can drink normally and people who can’t, and that labels like alcoholic or addict have any meaning at all.

In late 2015, Whitaker started a private group on Facebook for women in recovery. I asked for permission to join and was immediately welcomed into a small but rapidly growing fold of women who, like me, were trying to change their lives. Many, if not most, of the group was very newly sober, as evidenced by scores of posts celebrating day, week, and month counts, dramatic “before” and “after” pictures, and and pleas for advice on everything from how to ride out cravings to how to deal with partners, family members, and friends who didn’t support our goal of sobriety.

In addition to swapping stories and milestones, these women loved to share articles about the evils of alcohol. Apparently, it’s not just bad for alcoholics, but for everyone. Apparently, it’s not just dangerous in massive quantities but, studies increasingly show, in any amount at all. Apparently, it wreaks havoc on the human body: cancer, heart disease, cirrhosis of the liver, pancreatitis, brain damage, digestive issues, anxiety, depression, the list goes on and on, especially for people with underlying conditions. And, most shocking of all, this information is apparently enough to make some people who have trouble moderating their drinking swear off alcohol for good.

I was not some people. Now, I’m a reasonable person and a reasonably educated person, but when it came to drinking, I didn’t give a shit about the facts. I liked poisoning myself. Self-destruction was the point. Chaos engine, remember? I worshiped at the altar of subversive and countercultural and cool, and I thought drinking to excess was a symbol of all that. There’s nothing rebellious about cutting back on drinking for your blood pressure or whatever.

Enter AA. AA gave me exactly what I needed to make sobriety stick, back in early 2016. AA told me that the problem wasn’t with the drink, the problem was with me, and I loved that. I was allergic to alcohol, in body and mind. I had a disease, one that was chronic and incurable and progressive and fatal. A lot of people can’t get past the part of AA that asks them to take on the label of alcoholic, but once I found my way into the rooms, I had zero problem with it. In fact, I derived a tremendous amount of satisfaction from being special. Admitting defeat and aligning myself with ex-junkies and drunks felt a million times more rebellious than carrying on, trying to be a normal woman drinking normal drinks in normal amounts out of totally normal glasses (no whiskey in a water bottle or rum in a mug over here!).

The main problem was I still desperately wanted to fit in. I wanted to drink cocktails with my mom friends and beer with my husband and wine at client dinners. I wanted what passed for a normal life: unwinding after work and blowing off steam on the weekends. I wanted to feel different and I was still convinced alcohol was the thing that would take me there. And so my will kept worming around in the muck of my mind, rooting up excuses and loopholes and reasons why I wasn’t that bad, why I was never really addicted, why recovery, even as I was living it, couldn’t really work for someone like me. When I went back out in 2020, I offered those reasons up like my kid coming at me with a fistful of worms. “This is what I’m doing, don’t bother asking because isn’t it obvious why? NO QUESTIONS, PLEASE.”

My husband, to his eternal credit, listened and nodded and never once asked me to go back to AA. He did buy me a book: “This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol, Find Freedom, Discovery Happiness, and Change Your Life” by Annie Grace. He’d just heard about it on a podcast and thought I’d be interested in the scientific case for quitting drinking. Little did he knew I already knew it well and had decided it wasn’t for me. Grace’s book came out in 2015 when I was dipping my toes in the waters of recovery. Whitaker promoted Grace’s work as nothing about of revolutionary and dozens of women who had once made up my de facto support group online swore by it. “Just read the book,” they said, “and you’ll never want to drink ethanol again. It’s the same stuff we use to power cars and lawn mowers!” Obviously I refused for the same reason I’d first refused to try AA: contempt prior to investigation, that serial killer of curiosity and growth.

In early 2021, I still had no interest in the book–I was still feeling out the shape of my new life– but I couldn’t not read it this time around. Not when it showed up on my Kindle with a sweet note from the love of my life. Not when reading it was the only thing he asked me to do besides “stop lying.”

I read the book like I read all non-fiction that’s not memoir: slowly, grudgingly, and wanting only for it to end. I also read it entirely without hope. I’ve been thinking about drinking for twenty years; there was no way this Annie person was going to teach me something I didn’t already know about alcohol.

I wasn’t wrong on that front. There was nothing in the book that blew my mind. We all know alcohol is, like, really bad for you, right? That it’s the deadliest drug and will eventually go the way of cigarettes? We know this. I knew this. But I gotta say, the facts hit different in 2021. Five years ago, I may not have been the kind of person who made major lifestyle decisions based on something as mundane as my health, but that was before we lived through a global pandemic. That was before I personally lived through a COVID scare and a self-harm scare and a cancer scare. That was before family members survived worse. That was before family of friends did not survive. That was before Lauren died. Now alcohol’s death march beats on in a register I can’t ignore.

I made myself a drink a few days after I finished the book and when I got the urge to pour another, I followed it to the cabinet, but this time I didn’t lay the blame on my faulty wiring. The problem may have been mine, but it was never me. Alcohol is an addictive substance. In demanding more, my brain was reacting exactly like it was supposed to.

When I picked up a drink in 2020, the biggest relief was giving up the narrative of terminal uniqueness that had been driving my every move for the last five years. So what if I still couldn’t seem to control or hold my booze? In those ghastly, unprecedented times, what could be more normal than that?

So what’s next and what now? What is the value in proving you can drink just like everybody else if drinking like that still makes you sick? What do you do about a problem that may not be you but is still very much yours? What does recovery look like when you take yourself out of the rooms? It seems I’m right back where I started, wondering whether the concept of recovery is available to someone like me. The difference this time is that I know the answers live inside the questions which are born inside of me. The answer is not in a blog or a book or a Facebook group or a church basement or a Zoom room.

Oh, and one more thing, because I’ll never be too evolved to throw an AA aphorism at a situation: recovery isn’t for people who need it, it’s for the people who want it.

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“We Don’t Do The Same Drugs No More”

I finally went to the OB-GYN last week. I hadn’t been since my post-partum check up, six weeks after my daughter was born. That was four years ago. The CNM scrunched up her face when I told her. “You haven’t had any lady care for four years?

It pisses me off that people are often blasé about the fact that men in their twenties and thirties go to the doctor pretty much never but women who don’t go the the OB-GYN every year are seen as irresponsible. “I thought the USPSTF changed the recommendation for pap screening from one to three years?” It was half question, half half-hearted explanation. That wasn’t why I hadn’t been in, but it made me feel better. “Plus, I’m not on birth control,” I added, realizing I hadn’t adequately justified my hiatus from reproductive health. That one hit a little closer to the truth of the matter. I stopped taking hormonal birth control the year before I got pregnant and never went back on, and absolutely relished the freedom. Yes, I realize that the pill that tied me to a doctor and flatlined my sex drive is the same one that liberated me and millions of other women. I can hold onto both of these truths at the same time. The CNM tucked her leg up onto the chair, tucked a chunk of pink hair behind her ear, chiding me quietly as she pulled up a new chart: “That may be, but you still need exams.”

It’s not like I’d been neglecting my health. I am in tune with my body to an almost freakish degree and I love medicine of both the Eastern and Western variety. Almost as soon as I went back to work after maternity leave, my stress-induced TMJ flared up. I tried acupuncture first, but it didn’t do enough to justify ducking out of work for an hour at a time, so I turned to an internist who was so cute I decided he would be my first-ever adult primary care physician. What I wanted was painkillers. What I got was a referral for PT that ended up being exorbitantly expensive and inordinately time-consuming and not covered by my insurance.

Later that year, I went back to the internist about a strange rash. I made big plans to tell him about my anxiety, too, but couldn’t find the words. I’d never told anybody how my chest tightened up every day when I left the office, or how my stomach roiled before I left the house. Was that anxiety? Was it bad enough to warrant medication or did I just want to get high? What I wanted was to get the ball rolling toward a prescription for Xanax. What I got was a diagnosis of stress-induced eczema.

A few months after that I huffed a chemical inhalant in the middle of my work day. I think the high lasted a few hours but it was hard to tell when it wore off because my head didn’t come back to my body. I remained in a dissociative state that the internet told me was called depersonalization for six days. I remembered that I had a primary care doctor and called his office to beg for an appointment. A different doctor in the same practice group squeezed me in. “Are you under a lot of stress?” he asked, shining a light into my eyes. I nodded. He asked me to turn my head from side to side. “Do you find yourself crying?” “Mhm.” My eyes welled up. What I wanted was somebody to tell me I didn’t have brain damage. What I got was instructions to come back for a full blood workup the next week.

I went to a therapist instead.

I went through a round of CBT.

I got back to running.

I got sober.

In short, I started to get right mentally, physically, and spiritually.

Nine months after I quit drinking, I ran a marathon. A particularly severe bout of post-race tendonitis drove me back to the primary care physician. I’d sustained enough strains and sprains in my two decades as a runner to know that ice and rest would do the trick, but the pain in my hip was bad enough that I figured I could benefit from talking to a physical therapist who specialized in running injuries. Of course, I never would have booked the appointment if I didn’t think I there was a chance I could also get drugs. In the few minutes it took to schedule an appointment online, the pink cloud that had been carrying me for months dissipated. I went from happy sober person, chirping away in meetings about how great it felt to be so present for my family during the holidays to walking zombie. I went from wanting to get better quickly to hoping for something serious–a fracture or a tear. I didn’t think about calling my sponsor. I didn’t think about what I’d do when the pills ran out. I couldn’t think about anything but the possibility of getting high again. I obsessed about what I needed to do to make it happen. The next day, I hobbled to the office and told the doctor with a straight face that the pain was an eight. I told him I could barely walk. I got him worried enough that he wrote out an order for an x-ray, which is when I knew the jig was up because there was a minuscule chance I might be pregnant that I couldn’t ignore, given how long my husband and I had been trying to have a second kid. The doctor sent me home with no x-ray, no drugs, and prescription for ice and rest. “Come back if it still hurts when you get your period.” Fuck.

Once you’ve developed a taste for pharmaceuticals, every doctor’s office is a street corner, every appointment a seedy transaction, every honest ailment immediately supplanted by symptoms of the most plausible path to opiate relief. And when you are sober, every ache is an invitation to go back out. It’s easy to pretend you’re not flirting with relapse because sometimes people need medicine. With my history, the question of how prescription drugs fit into sobriety should be black and white but when I try to hold a picture of my sober life still in my head, there is so much blank space I start filling in the gaps with gray. Of course, most doctors aren’t handing out controlled substances like candy anymore. When you are an ex-pillhead, that almost doesn’t matter. The possibility alone is enough to throw you off course. It’s easier to avoid doctors altogether.

So that’s why I haven’t been to OB-GYN. I can’t trust myself to go in for a pap smear and not drum up enough undiagnosable premenstrual pain to walk out with a low-grade narcotic that will start the slow unspooling of my life. If you jump through enough hoops, the drugs will come. That’s how, last month, I ended up driving myself away from the hospital at 2 AM on a Sunday with a clean bill of health and a unnecessary prescription for Norco tucked in my bag, mind racing with thoughts like:

“A tranvaginal ultrasound is a steep price to pay for a week’s worth of pills;” and

“I guess nobody ever accused a junkie of driving a hard bargain;” and, most importantly,

“What the fuck am I going to do when these pills run out?”

The next 24 hours were mental torture. I had drugs, but I also had a head full of AA, which means I am utterly incapable of convincing myself that taking even one pill (or drink) is not a big deal. I know where one pill (or drink) goes. I’ve been there before and it’s hell. There is no easy way back if you even get a chance to come back.

Of course I was going to fill the prescription anyway. I went to four pharmacies that day. One rejected my (extremely common and accepted everywhere) insurance. The other three were closed, two of them within thirty minutes of me showing up. By 8 PM I had nowhere to go but my usual Sunday night candlelight meeting. Somebody said something about their daughter and I remembered (for the first time in days) that mine was turning four soon and that if I took those pills, I’d be drinking or using or withdrawing on her birthday. I knew enough about myself to know there was simply no way I would not be a fucking mess. I went home knowing what I had to do, knowing exactly how good I would feel when I did it, but still unwilling. The next morning I woke up early and, without giving myself time to think the decision through, turned on the stove and stuck my hand with the paper prescription into the burner. The night before, a doctor friend had told me to just rip it up, which I guess would have done the trick, but I needed this thing gone. The burn was not clean; I was.

The unexplained pain that had precipiated my ER visit disappeared that day.

I kept the OB-GYN appointment I had scheduled a few days earlier anyway. I’ve been trying to have another baby for two years and have reached the point that I can’t pretend doctors don’t exist. The CNM asked me questions as she filled in my chart. “What was the first day of your last period?” “How many days is your cycle?” “Do you drink?”

I looked up from the paperwork I was working on and looked her in the eye and told her what I’ve before never told a medical professional because I was not willing to burn bridges I might want to cross later: “No. I haven’t had a drink since January 30, 2016. I have a history of substance abuse, mostly painkillers and weed. I can’t mess around with that stuff.”

“Congratulations!” she said.

When I left, I felt relieved. Not because I think I am finally going to get pregnant but because I finally have a doctor I can go back to without tearing  open my old wounds.