We were perfect for each other.
One Saturday afternoon, when my whole family was gone, for one reason or another, and Missy and I were hanging out, I said, apropos of nothing at all, “I wonder what it would be like to be drunk?” I don’t know what she was thinking, but the idea had been rolling around like a ghost, popping up unannounced at odd times, part mournful, always wistfully fleeting.
Everything changed on that day. Everything. It didn’t matter that we mixed vodka with grape Kool-Aid. It didn’t matter that I hated the taste, regardless of the concentrations we used – mostly Kool-Aid with a dollop of vodka to begin our (my) experiment, to mostly vodka with a tinge of purple by the end. It didn’t matter that I drank Missy under the table and would have kept drinking were it not for the knock on the door that turned out to be my grandparents of all people, who sensed that something was up with me, but even then, I was pretty expert at hiding in plain sight.
What mattered was the feeling of power and peace that I felt. What mattered was that, for the first time in my life, I felt as if I could breathe, finally, after holding in my breath for 11 long years. What mattered was that all those ghostly voices in my head, that whispered to me how lost and alone and wrong I was, they all quieted until I could almost believe I was okay. What mattered was the conviction that I wanted this feeling to last forever.
For the next 7,000+ days, give or take a month or three, nothing about me changed. I remained geeky and gawky. I was too smart and I used my intelligence like a fine edged sword, lashing out, showing off, drawing blood, to make you hurt as much as I did. I stood on the edges, observing the life around me unable to step inside. Inside was too noisy. Inside was too unknown. Inside was too uncontrollable. Inside would chew me up and spit me out and find me wanting.
Somewhere in the first 1,000 of those 7,000 or so days, I had my first blackout; I learned to drink at my hurt; I learned to drink at my fear. I learned to chase that singular moment of intoxicated power and peace no matter how just out of my grasp that moment was.
Somewhere in the next 2,000 or so of those 7000+ days, I learned that would never fit. I learned that I would always be alone. I learned that if I drank, it was easier to pretend to fit, to not care so much that I didn’t.
Somewhere in the next 3,000 or so days of those 7,000+ days, I lost God. Well, not lost really; more like cut my ties and walked away. I knew it would be easier to do this than wait for God to do it to me. I learned that I was a fraud, that whatever it was that everyone else seemed to see in me – talent and skill and goodness and honesty – they were all masks that I wore, thin façades between me and the rest of the world, and the rest of the world was clamoring and clawing to rip the masks apart and expose me. I learned that drinking filled all the holes that God the people I’d left behind made.
Those last 1,000 or so days of those 7,000+ days were a bit of a blur. I learned to be ice. To be steel. To crawl into a tiny boxed in universe of one that kept everything out, that kept me safe. I learned to run and hide and disappear. I learned to burn bridges and cut my losses. I learned to dodge bills and avoid landlords. I learned to crawl into a bottle and live in the land of Forever – where time stopped and pain and hurt and fear clung to me like flop sweat. I learned that drinking was killing me, and I didn’t really care.
Nine thousand one hundred and thirty days ago, I learned that no matter how many bottles I crawled into, I would always find myself back in the outside, and whatever problem I’d been running from was now crisis, was now exploding, was now atomic waste. I learned that ice melts and pain leaks and facades crumble, and at some point, I was raw and exposed and desperately sad. I learned that next time will never be different. I learned I had no ability to not drink, and that scared the shit out of me.
Nine thousand one hundred and thirty one days ago, I crawled into an AA meeting, and I learned that I never had to drink again. I did not know how to do that. They told me, all those people with their days and their weeks and months and years, and their coins that marked their time, they told me to not drink, go to meetings. They told me to find God, find a sponsor – not necessarily in that order. They told me to get books and go to meetings and collect phone numbers (and use them). They told me to change everything and work the steps and go to more meetings and read and write and give it away and service. They said to keep coming back, to work it all, because it works if you work it.
This may not all have been said to me 9,131 days ago. By the time 3 more days had passed, and I kept going to those meetings, looking haunted and feeling as if I had crawled out of my skin because I hadn’t picked up a drink and what the hell – was it going to feel like this forever, I had heard it all. Every single platitude of hope and love and sobriety and faith – I’d heard them all. It took me longer than I care to recount to learn these lessons.
They promised it would get better.
And that was the first couple of days – me, desperate and raw and terrified – that I’d drink, that I couldn’t, that I was weak and vulnerable and less than. It was all I could do to get through the next measurement of time: breath, minute, cup of coffee, meeting, hour, the dark of night filled with shadows and silence and the voices in my own head screaming for release, for that one sip, those thirty seven seconds of liquid fire that would take my pain and doubt away.
I had learned nothing in those first few days, but I did not drink. And because I didn’t drink those couple of days, there were a couple few more days, strung together while I dried out in the meeting rooms and coffee houses. And those days slipped into more days, slipped into 30 that fell into 90. Every day a meeting. Every day a prayer – please God, don’t let me drink. Every day silence and shadows and hanging on for dear life, and desperate hope that they were telling me the truth, that I never had to drink again. That I never had to be alone. That it would get better.
Some days were easy, even in those first handful of weeks and months. Some felt like a walk on a tightrope of barbed wire that hung suspended over an abyss as deep as night. In the last 9,131 days, here’s what I’ve learned (mostly pretty slowly, by fits and false starts), by God’s great grace. Some of these lessons I am still learning – also by God’s great grace. There’s a lot of stumbling around, a lot of hairpin turns and switchbacks that return me to some beginning point I could barely remember. For all of that – by the grace of God and the fellowship of AA, I have not picked up a drink in 9,131 days. For the past 25 years, I have been sober. They were right, those AA friends: life got better. They would often add “It isn’t easy,” an epitaph of sorts. They were right about that as well.
Around about around about 8,500 hundred days ago, I learned, just before my best-friend-in-sobriety, the woman I talked to every day, a couple of times a day, and saw every night at our 8:00 meeting, and had coffee with every night after the meeting, rain or shine, hell or high water, she went out. Just like that, sober one minute, using the next. And while she had done the drinking thing before, and the coke thing, too (it was the 80s then, after all, now she was sticking needles in her arm, doing the heroin thing.
So I learned there were no guarantees. Not even for people I loved. And the other thing all those AA people talked about – how our disease was doing push ups all the time we weren’t using, weren’t practicing our addictions – they weren’t lying about that, either. Even harder to learn: nothing I say will make an alcoholic stop using, not a goddamned thing. Of course, nothing I say will keep an alcoholic sober either. Still, the first proposition – that was a bitter pill to swallow.
Somewhere around 7,000 days ago, I learned God. I didn’t find God. I didn’t create a God of my understanding. I learned God. I was about three and a half years sober, and I wanted to use. Planned it, actually. I was sober, mostly in name only. I wasn’t using, but I wanted to so badly I could almost taste the gin slipping down my throat. At three and a half years, I still couldn’t figure the God thing out. They told me to find one, as if God were an inflatable toy, to be blown up when needed and then folded and packed away when I was done. I saw everyone getting it, finding a God of their own understanding, and I was happy that they had. I wasn’t completely convinced that I ever would myself, and took secret pride in my uniqueness.
Around about 6,000 days ago, I learned God, and I learned to pray – simply, humbly, with everything of my heart and soul in the words. Desperate to drink, I had learned to listen to a few friends in the program, and one of them suggested that before I drank, at least try praying. “At least,” my Jewish friend said to me, “get down on your knees one time, and ask for help.” I sank to my knees, there in my living room that was filled with shadows and silence and I said, :I give. I can’t be so alone. I need help.”
That was my prayer exactly. And in the exact moment of my prayer, there was God, neither lost nor misplaced nor imaginary. Just there. And I didn’t drink. And I slept. And the next day, nothing had changed. The earth still spun on its axis, day followed night followed day. I went to work and ate and fed the cat and I didn’t drink. And whatever crisis I had clung to, whatever hurt I had nursed, whatever plan to the contrary, I didn’t drink.
A bit more than 7,000 days ago, I learned that I could be loved. In fact, I could love and be loved enough to marry. I had spent a lifetime believing I was unlovable, that I was missing something, that I was a tiny little bit off, almost human enough to pass, but lacking enough to be doomed to a lonely and solitary existence. No way in hell would I ever get vulnerable or intimate enough to let someone see inside – because then they’d see just how wrong I was. But I stood under the chuppah and declared I love. I am loved.
Nine months later, to the day, 6,747 days ago, I had learned enough of love and God and faith and hope that there was my son, a whole new kind of love, a whole new host of terrors. More grace than I could ever have imagined, learned as I held him, cradled against my heart, sweet as forever, filled with the music of God.
Fifty-eight hundred days ago, I saw the world change. We all did. And I wept and wondered and learned none of us is safe, life isn’t a guarantee and hope can be more powerful than fear.
Forty-seven hundred days ago, I found my voice again. I had lost singing much as I had lost God, deliberately, because it brought me joy. When I sang, all those voices that plagued me, all the doubt that tethered me in place, they lifted and I could feel light and God. And there, 4,700 days ago, I found music again, and I learned to let joy flow through me like honey.
Almost 3,900 days ago, I learned that love doesn’t always last. It changes and grows and shrinks and skips about. Love can be hard; it always means work. And sometimes, no matter how hard you work, love dies. And love that is dead can be ugly – as ugly as sin and indifference. As ugly as hate. It is noisy and dissonant and jarring and lonely.
A bit over 3,000 days ago, hatred and indifference smoothed out, turned to a stiff and fragile civility. With the stroke of a pen we were done. Love wasn’t forever – but neither was hatred. And slowly, that forced civility gave way itself to a different kind of love, an easier love born of shared obligation, not to each other, but to our son.
Twenty-six hundred days ago, give or take, I learned hell. I learned it’s possible to lose just about everything – houses, jobs, friends, faith. I learned that sometimes, you find the trap door rather than the bottom. There is always a bottom; there is always a trap door. Exactly 2,526 days ago, on a day of joy and celebration, the birthday of the world, I lost my brother. I learned that even in the searing pain of that, there is grace: we were with my brother all those last weeks, and in the final hours, when he wasn’t conscious, we stayed with him, and talked to him and held his hand. He was not alone. I carry that moment with me still, sweet and sharp.
Twenty-four hundred days ago, I learned the absolute zero of numbness. I learned that sadness lingers, clinging to my skin like a cloak, and grief has its own timetable. I learned that even with so many days, drinking has a siren call that is almost impossible to resist. Even knowing that, at best, I’d get a minute or three of release by drinking, sometimes the pain that seeps through the numbness is great enough that it seems worth it, to lose everything. Almost.
Fifteen hundred days ago, I got paid for a story. It was a tiny check, as checks go, but I could barely contain the immensity of it. I had a voice – different from singing and it flowed through me like music, like honey.
Twelve hundred days ago, bitter and sweet twined again, a letting go and a leaping towards. Fear and joy and desire and need. It was another round of losing, another round of gaining. Perhaps not so desperate as the last, but difficult and demanding nonetheless.
The last thousand days or so have been a blur, mostly. I have learned the true meaning or powerless, in watching people I love slog through hell and be unable to do anything except witness with them, be present with them. I chafe at being a human being, and would much prefer to be a human doing. There is something that feels much more satisfying in that. I have learned to live a life beyond my wildest dreams, to accept that it’s not a false-bottomed boat and won’t be snatched away in the blink of an eye. I have learned, almost too slowly, to ask for help. My skin doesn’t crawl quite so much when I do, and I’ve been assured that, with practice and humility, I might not cringe at all. I can admit to not knowing, even on a bad day. This is actually the softer easier way.
For the past 9,131 days, I have learned to live rather than exist. This hasn’t always been easy, and I have more than a few scars to prove it. In and around and between all those days, there was love and pain and jobs and fear and money and joy and death and bills and grief and triumph and boredom and danger and grace – always grace – a gift unlooked for, perhaps underserved, but, like love, unconditional. In and around and between all these days, I didn’t drink – even when I wanted to , even when I longed to sink back into a bottle, I didn’t drink.
In all of these days, there has been faith that breathes and changes and shrinks and blossoms, and is sometimes just enough to allow me to put one foot in front of the other. In all these days, there has been God, though I had my eyes closed and my arms crossed for a fair number of those days. I like to think, at times, that God waited patiently for me to look up and see. Sometimes we wrestle, me and God; sometimes we dance.
Those AA people were right, the ones with the days and the hours and the months and years of their own: don’t drink, go to meetings, it gets better.
For the grace of God and the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous, for all those who have walked this path before, who’ve set the torches up and left the maps with the dragons and quicksand clearly marked, I give thanks. To all of my sponsors who put up with me, my sponsees who taught me more that they perhaps suspected, I give thanks. To my son, who taught me about God and love, I give thanks,
To God, who offers me grace and waits for me to dance,,,