It’s been one year since I’ve sipped the thing that crept up on me in a not-awesome way. Or maybe it was great fun for a minute, but toward the end always ended up being not great.
Somewhere along the line, I’d lost sight of how intertwined it had become with my identity as a human. And to detangle myself from it was something I’d tried to do on my own for years, unsuccessfully. Once I found support, dare I say it was easy? I’m not saying there aren’t tough moments, but for the most part in looking back, I feel tickled — almost like “wait, what just happened? I didn’t drink once the whole year?”
I’ve traveled the country, went on vacation with my family, attended (and hosted) parties, went to wine-tastings, experienced summer cookouts and pool season, hosted Thanksgiving and experienced the Christmas and New Year holiday seasons. And it didn’t feel like I had to survive these things. Well maybe a few times (ha), but I took the bad moments with a lot of amazingly good moments where I experienced (and savored) raw joy.
In the beginning, I was scared I wouldn’t even know me. The only time I’d not socially drank in my adult life was when I was pregnant (although four times), but then my identity was “healthy mommy-to-be.” There was a direct reason I was not imbibing. Now it was like “shit, it’s just me. Sober equals boring and not fun. Lifeless. Expressionless. Torturous! Right? Will I have to fake it?”
I was terrified. I knew I wouldn’t fake it because I have no pretense, so I’d just stay in and become a homebody. I guess I could get behind that.
But that isn’t what happened.
I started thinking too much (like I do), and one unrelenting, nagging thought kept coming.
A substance… a fermented substance has defined me? It (a man-made chemical product) has decided if I can go out there in the world and enjoy it?!
It was as if this massive rush of water came flooding out of nowhere and flattened me. But then I was awake and alert, clean and clear. Instead of saying to myself “I will survive this event without drinking,” I said to myself “I’m going to a neat event tonight where I will see some great people. I’ll be me. Maybe I’ll have fun.” (Even though I still wasn’t sure what “me” really meant in that setting without the ethanol part.) But I learned.
Discovering myself was a process. And it was fine. I did know me. I was there all along. Just not overly-heightened and then numbed. And I was so scared about what people would say or think.
Well, I also learned…
They really don’t care! Who knew? No one cares. If they ask, I can tell them. But not one person was mean to me about it. I didn’t make it a topic of conversation unless a person had lots of questions and truly wanted to know — perhaps for their own life or someone they love — but asking me was out of love and good reasons. Not out of hate, jealousy or spite. It was all good. It made my heart happy and refreshed that humans are that awesome. And I was so wrong about them for so long (and drank a lot over it too), because I had anxiety about how they thought of me or what they said about me.
It was as if someone had taken a big, dark, heavy bar that was laying across my shoulders and just lifted it right up. That heavy burden — gone. To the point where I felt something missing like “I’m supposed to be really worried and upset about something right now, but I can’t remember what it is.”
That is not to say it is all sunshine and rainbows. There are moments of sadness and longing. Feelings of unfilled voids and unsatisfied itches. They do pass. But they can be intense. When they’re happening I give myself permission to feel them. I’ve earned them — they’re mine. I can cry if I want, eat some chocolate, call my sponsor or a friend, go to a meeting (the best place in the world), go take a hot bath, crack open up a nonalcoholic beer if I want. It’s OK to feel those empty feelings and think about them and why I might be experiencing them.
Sometimes when I’m out and it’s getting late, we’ve eaten, we’ve visited and laughed, and I’m just ready to go home — it can get hard. Friends go to the heightened *really* fun place — and I can’t go with them like I used to. That hurts. The pain can be like when you’re in fifth grade and there’s a literal circle of kids standing together and you aren’t a part of it.
But I’ve found a solution — when it’s too late and people are getting crazy — I go home and put my pjs on. I’ve had my wild days, and I’m OK with this. But longing or sadness, it’ll happen now and again, and as my dear counterparts will remind me “play the tape all the way through, Courtney.” That helps so much. It’s *never* worth sacrificing my hard work and commitment. Waking up and having the ominous wave of physical and mental doom… nope I won’t go back.
Some like to know my “why.” All it took was my 9-year-old daughter asking me when I tucked her in one night “what’s that funny smell in your breath? It’s different.” Those last few months I had switched to a glass of scotch on some nights instead of wine. It just cut the edge off so quickly. I couldn’t resist it. And the no-drinking nights (wine, beer, vodka, whatever)… had become nil. I was drinking to cope, not to have fun. Just to cope. I knew it was getting real and I would tackle it. I just didn’t know when or how.
It’s not easy to say this out loud, but I do so for other people. To give them hope that if you have shame or fear or sadness in your heart about how often you drink, you are not alone. And you have hope. Always hope.
The last straw was New Year’s last year. I looked at the liquor cabinet, and I could not decide what I wanted. Here was the silent thought-trajectory that unfurled: “Hmmm, what’ll it be tonight. Red wine is really making me feel heavy and yucky and maybe even heart-burny. Acidic was the word. Beer…ew I don’t want to get bloaty and burpy plus there are so many calories and the only beer that sounds good is Blue Moon (Aldi version ha) and that’s like 8,000 calories per bottle. Hmmm…I could do a vodka and LaCroix! No, vodka is just tasting like straight-up poison lately. Well, a little glass of scotch, that’ll do it.”
I could see my reflection in the cabinet glass. And I paused for a second and looked at my eyes. What was it? What was I looking for? Numbness? At the time, I was so nervous whether I’d be accepted into the Ph.D. program, and then if I was how that might affect my children and my marriage. And the cost of it. And the time. And was I actually even smart enough to see it through. The heaviest wave of reality and clarity stung in that moment of seeing my own face.
I poured the drink. I went to the bath and cried and prayed “please God help me. There’s not enough of it. It feels like a bottomless pit. There’s not enough alcohol. There’s no more variety left. It’s not satisfying me. Please help me.” As I sipped and cried.
That next evening (I was never a daytime drinker — I mean unless it was vacation or something), instead of pouring, I’d attend my first meeting. I don’t know how I got through the doors and into the chair. It was like an auto-pilot took over. I got there, and I cried all the way through it. And then I kept going. Each day.
Those first five to six days are a blur. I went to four different locations. It was so emotional and physically painful. But God, my family and those dear people. They carried me. It felt like they were literally carrying me. I cherish them in a way only an AA member can understand. I cherish them whole-heartedly. They are the most beautiful, compassionate and loving individuals any human could come to know. And I feel pain for those struggling individuals who are unwilling to embrace that kind of unconditional love and acceptance. The meaning of the word gratitude takes on a whole new meaning, one you cannot put into words. And peace. Holding hands and saying the Lord’s Prayer with strangers who are not strangers brings an inexplicable peace.
So today I celebrate. My clear head, newfound energy, ceased anxiety (for the most part), getting off of medication and the joy in my little kids when we are laughing together and I’m present with them (I’m not perfect and we still suck on limiting screen time). Today I’m celebrating getting to know myself without that chemical, my clear skin and full hair, the waking up every morning sans the “oh no” moments. God I don’t miss those.
I celebrate my discovery of God’s love and peace in the realness around me. The way the stars look in the sky and the cool air on my skin. Three weeks into my new self-discovery, McKenna said “Mom, I don’t know what’s different about you, but I like it.” And I tucked her in tight and gave her the best forehead kiss of all time. I let my lips just rest on her head for a moment and smelled her hair as tears dripped out of my eyes.
Walking up to my home at night after taking the garbage down on a holiday, I saw in the frosty window my large family filling a room, sitting around the table laughing. Their warmth fogged up the windows. I just stood there in the cold and noticed them; I could see my breath in the air. Allowing yourself those moments to stand there and take it in. That is what I have discovered. That is pure joy.
This isn’t my story told in a way to compare or make others feel a certain way. It’s just my story. And a small blip of it. I don’t share it in hopes that others will question their behavior. I share it for the person who has already questioned their behavior, is suffering deeply and needs hope.
I share it with a goal of reducing stigma around the conversation.
Abstinence is not for everyone. There is profound research on the efficacy of harm-reduction. If you need help and cannot comprehend abstinence or AA, please google harm-reduction for alcohol use.
My prayer for you is you can do the next right thing for yourself so you can be present for… yourself.