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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Saved

People don’t know what to make of mixed-faith marriages in which one of the partners is Mormon. Mormons can’t fathom how a true believer could put her salvation in jeopardy by marrying outside the faith. Non-Mormons can’t fathom why any normal person would get mixed up in that weird, fundamentalist business.

Knowing (assuming) this was how people looked at my relationship, I offered compulsive, preemptive explanations for how my non-Mormon husband and my Mormon-self came to be a couple, varying the amount of detail depending on the circumstances.

The acquaintance/dinner party version: “You see, I wasn’t practicing when we met.”

The opening up to a friend version: “I wasn’t practicing when we met, but he made me want to be a better person, so after a few years of dating, I went back to the church.”

The girls’ night TMI version: “I wasn’t practicing when we started dating, so of course we slept together, but then I went back to church and told him we had to stop, and he stuck around, and if that isn’t love, you tell me what is.”

The late-night confessional version: “I was a train wreck when we met, addicted and suicidal and spiritually dead, but he made me want to stop getting high, and gave me something to live for, and when the fog cleared I realized I still believed in a Mormon God.”

The story I told myself to justify not getting married in a Mormon temple and breaking my parents’ hearts: “He saved me.”

Whatever the story or the audience, there was a layer of nuance that never made it into any retelling: there wasn’t exactly a clean break between my old messy life and my happy new one.

My new boyfriend was not Mormon, but he definitely did not do drugs and he barely drank. When we were together, drinking seemed like the last thing on his mind. I found this puzzling, since it was always the first thing on mine. I’d spent nearly every day of the last three years drinking or getting high or thinking about drinking or getting high and, at twenty, I was not at all ready to give those things up. At the same time, I sensed that my obsession with (read: addiction to) getting loaded was not only abnormal but incompatible with having a healthy, committed relationship with a clear-eyed, clear-headed person. In fact, I was so sold on the narrative of happily ever after that when the obsession did not diminish after I fell in love, I thought it was a harbinger of doom for the relationship. Or at least a harbinger of me being super fucked up. So I never said a word about the pull I still felt to disappear into a bottle, or how much it hurt when I couldn’t, and I stuffed down uncomfortable questions every time they bubbled up.

Questions like:

  • Why did I feel the need to down a bottle of sake I had stashed under the front seat of my car during the seven minute drive from my house to my boyfriend’s apartment?
  • Why did I keep booze in my car?
  • Why did sitting on the couch watching British sitcoms and drinking tea on a Friday night make me want to crawl out of my skin?
  • Why, on the occasional nights when my boyfriend did suggest a drink, did the single cocktail he inevitably mixed leave me feeling restless and irritable?
  • Why, on the occasional nights when I did still go out with my girlfriends, did I always end up wasted, puking, belligerent, mean?
  • Why, on the occasional nights when I found myself out with other men, did I end up in compromising verging on dangerous situations?
  • Why did I always lie about how much I drank and who I drank with?

Though it would take me years to get a handle on my relationship with alcohol, I only ever got high a few times after we got together. One of the last times, I was taking Percocet that I stole from my roommate, had been taking it for a few days, maybe a week, and was lying in bed next to my boyfriend waiting for the effect to set in when it hit me that I did not want to spend the rest of the night floating, disconnected from the person that I loved. I jumped up and ran to the bathroom, jammed my fingers down my throat, and tried to throw up the pills before they kicked in. It didn’t work, but that night marked the first time that the desire to be present had ever outweighed the desire to be high. When I went through the same thing the next night, I managed to flush the pills. A few years later, we left Arizona and I left the drug years behind for good.

The full story of my transition from party girl to good girlfriend does not go down as easy as the fairy tale. For one thing, the story didn’t end when I landed a partner. My problems persisted. Eventually, I would learn that all of the uncomfortable questions I dodged in the early years of our relationship had one answer: Because I was an alcoholic. And love does not cure alcoholism. In my case, it slowed the progression, but it did not change the effect alcohol had on me and did not change the way I moved through the world.

For another thing, nobody saved me. I saved myself, at least at first. Most people who aren’t ready to give up drinking choose partners that don’t interfere with their lifestyle, if they are able to be in relationships at all. I knew back then that I wanted more, so I detoxed alone, white knuckled my way through cravings, and clawed my way back from relapses, so that I could be with the person I loved.

More Grimms’ than Disney, unsettling lessons lurk at the core of the real story.

Lessons like:

  • I did ugly things; there was nothing fun or glamorous or even interesting about my substance abuse; drugs and alcohol almost destroyed my relationship with my now-husband, the father of my child. These memories become more useful as the shame born from them fades and I am tempted to romanticize the past or convince myself that this whole sobriety thing is an overreaction.
  • I hit the wall with drugs long before I did with alcohol; I learned first-hand they were a dead-end; there is nothing there for me. These memories become more useful as my brain roots around for escape hatches and loopholes to this whole sobriety thing.
  • I didn’t get sober for my husband because I couldn’t get sober for my husband; I tried; it didn’t work. This knowledge is useful when we get in an argument and I start to weigh the pros and cons of drinking at him in revenge.
  • My husband is not my savior. This knowledge is useful because it lets him off the hook. Our relationship stands on its own merits.

I thought my husband would save me. When I fell in love and still wanted to die, I realized that I had to save myself. When I eventually quit all the drugs and booze and still wanted to die, I realized I needed something even bigger than myself. But that’s another story.