One Year of Sobriety

January 2004 is a period I remember with unwanted clarity.  Miserable in many ways, elated in others,  I had a 3-month old baby who I adored.  Likewise, my life was a shambles — financially, my relationships, my job was not a high-paying job and the likelihood that I’d get more hours was slim, and … I was “dry.”  Dry.  I can’t say “sober” in the true sense of the word, but I can honestly attest to my abstinence.  Emotional hangovers came and went. I had no contacts in AA.  After having my son, I had gotten away from meetings and had unlearned much of what I had heard over the first 9 months of meetings.

I had just started going back to work following my maternity leave and my working-from-home segue back to reality.  I just wanted to hold my baby boy with the red hair and single dimple under his eye all the time.  I adored him.  That was a beautiful part of my life and the smile he gave me when I returned from work.  We would lay on the blanket on the floor and kick. He would coo and play with my hair.  I reveled in it.  Sometimes I fell asleep holding him.  The dishes could wait.  In 30 years I wouldn’t remember whether the sink was filled with dishes or silvery shiny clean.  I would just remember his warm little body and his gurgling and cooing, his eye contact, his fascination with books I would show him, waking in the middle of the night reclined in the recliner still holding him …….. it was bliss.

With some emotional hangovers I knew I had to get back to meetings.  And I was a control freak about the baby. I had very solid unyielding opinions about how he would be raised.  Someone prematurely giving him a lick of ice cream would probably wind up overfeeding him on sweets and would make him fat.  I could see it now.   They might keep him awake too long so that he would fall asleep too early or take a nap during “my” time and I’d miss out— and that would set bad patterns down the road!  I could see it now.   He would be up all night in his teens and not waking up for school and he’d become a dropout and a burnout and …. and ….. they would ruin him!!!

Getting back to meetings wasn’t easy.  Before I had my son, I was just starting to feel like I belonged. People remembered my name.  I was attending the same meetings and people were no longer offering me their phone number and talking to me slowly so as not to scare off the new girl.

I didn’t celebrate my first year in AA.  I was pretty depressed on so many levels.  I was just over 30 and felt like my life was an irreversible  shambles.  There were screaming matches and arguments.  There was chaos.  NOTHING had changed.  And I was busy pointing the finger at the dysfunction around me – – the dysfunction I had so heartily welcomed and embraced.  I was also avoiding looking at the fact that I was rather dysfunctional.  I didn’t know how to stand up for myself. I would be passive or hyper-vigilant.  There WAS no middle ground.  I didn’t know how to communicate.  Dropping hints was my everyday lingo and if people didn’t read my mind or read between the lines? It meant they didn’t CARE.

The negativity was still there – that angry voice in my head telling me how bad everything sucked.

So I didn’t celebrate my first year. One night I went to a candlelight meeting that I had been previously involved with. There was a lady handing out chips [it is NOT a tradition of Alcoholic’s Anonymous but is sometimes a tradition of some groups to hand out “chips” to honor certain milestones in sobriety — there are months 1 through 11 and the 24-hour coin for those who wish to surrender to their disease and to remember 24 hours/one day at a time]. I watched and watched, squirming with each month they called out.

“Two months?” She would hold a coin above her head and look around the room.
Everyone in the room looked around, their heads wagging back and forth in bird-flock waves.
“What do we do?” Her voice projecting through the room.
“KEEP COMING BACK!” Everyone answered in unison.

The adrenaline built in me and I wasn’t sure why. I wasn’t sure what I was feeling. Even after a year, I had problems identifying feelings and sensations such as this. Was it excitement? Anxiety? Fear? I looked around and realized I was thinking of going up and asking her for a 1-year medallion. Surely they’d have one, wouldn’t they?

“Six months?’  She raised a coin above her head and waved it.  There was someone clapping in the back which led to applause and a beaming lady sauntered up there.  Her proud smile was beautiful from the sunbeam crowfeet spraying from the corners of her eyes to her toothy Hollywood grin. The applause subsided and she smiled her way back to her folding metal chair.

I wondered if I even deserved a year medallion.  I hadn’t been coming much to meetings for the past three months.  This argument – I seemed to labor over it for an eternity when it couldn’t possibly have been three minutes.

“To show the program works, would anyone with a year or more please raise their hands?”

Half the room raised their hands and I proudly raised mine, looking around to see if there were any surprised smiles in the crowd heading my way …… No one noticed. No one recognized the change since last week.

“…And if you didn’t have a drink today, thank your higher power and give yourselves a hand!” The room filled with applause. She smiled and turned toward the clear square container containing the chips.

With a clumsiness that I had intended to be stealth, I tripped over the leg of an empty metal chair and tried to nonchalantly continue my journey and make my plea — amid the clatter. The chairperson stopped saying what he was saying for a second. Some people turned to look at me, obviously wondering what was the racket.

I moved quickly now that she had snapped the container shut and was starting to turn away. I quickly gushed in a raised-voice whisper “How to you get a one year medallion? Do you have any?”

She told me she thought I would have to celebrate.  I pleaded with her with my eyes, but she wasn’t looking. The thought of “celebrating” (in AA jargon, this entails “telling your story” and having someone present you with a cake while the whole room sings “happy anniversary to youuuuuuu!”) nauseated me. For telling ones story, one must talk about “what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now.” I could straight-up say that “what it’s like now” SUCKED. “What happened” SUCKED. But at least “what it was like” sucked the worst of all of this suckiness. And that is why I kept coming.  This happened to suck the least.    There was also a component of stubbornness fueled with rage.  I wanted to show people I could DO it.

With an index finger to her chin, she squinted thoughtfully at the chairperson then scanned the room with her eyes. The hopefulness in her face dissipated and she turned her attention back to the box. She was quiet for a moment and started digging through the clear-plastic-square compartments, the chips clicking plastically.  With a smile the blonde lady with tattoos and powder blue eye shadow proudly presented me an 11-month chip and a 1-month chip.  “Eleven plus one is twelve ….” she explained with a polite smile and a shrug.

I cupped them in my hand and slunk back to my seat , defeated. Unfurling my fingers I sat in my folding metal chair and admired the pair of chips. The one-month chip was red, the eleven-month green. They were colorful and lustrous and reminded me of Christmas. I smiled softly before palming them discreetly in my purse. I felt like the whole room was watching me, wondering what I had done.  No one was. I know that now.  I’m just not as fascinating as I once thought I was.  [wink]

My anniversary came and went. No one noticed. I was dying for someone to notice and I would have died if they did. My mother congratulated me with an enthusiasm I had never seen — maybe something on par with my very first day of school but without the sweet talk and helping me get dressed and taking pictures of me. I kept my two chips in my purse. Occasionally I would encounter them in that zippered side pocket and my heart would swell for a second. In spite of it all, I did it.


First Sober Concert

Sober for two weeks, I went to my first concert.  I felt vulnerable. I felt naked.

Why did I take on such a big drink fest so early on?  I had the tickets already and was determined not to miss it.  I had seen Guns N’ Roses before.  And this wasn’t even the full band!  It was Axle Rose and Bucket Head and whoever else.  Waiting for my ride to arrive, I paced.  I was usually getting “started” now.

(I get up around seven 
Get outta bed around nine
And I don’t worry about nothin’ no
Cause worryin’s a waste of my, time)

In the car and en route, I was thinking I’d be drinking now – yep. Open container law et al.  Approaching the city the concert was in, I thought that we passed a store I would normally stop in for a refill.  In the concert hall, I passed concession stands with long lines waiting for some golden sudsy splendor.  A lump grew in my throat and threatened to strangle me as it expanded.

I shoved my hands in my pockets and fixed my eyes on the floor  – or the little I could see of it in this teeming mob.

(The show usually starts around seven
We go on stage at nine
Get on the bus at eleven
Sippin’ a drink and feelin’ fine)

A big scoreboard/clock/advertising thingy hung above the floor seats of the arena.  I stared at the clock.  7:41PM.  In five minutes, I vowed, I would get a beer.  7:46PM.  In five minutes, I vowed, I would get a beer.  People giggled in front of me, swilling theirs.  A man had a pint crammed in the back of the waistband of his jeans. Yukon Jack.  I salivated and looked at the clock.  7:51PM.  In five minutes, I vowed, I would get a beer.  Someone nearby lit a joint and I could smell its pungent blissful stink wafting in smoky curtains in front of my face.  I exhaled hard, busting its skunky cloud.  Turning my head from it, I breathed through my mouth – that won’t help.  Glancing at the clock, I saw it was 7:56PM.  Five minutes.  8:01.  I’ll get a God damned beer.

(We been dancin’ with 
Mr. Brownstone
He’s been knockin’
He won’t’ leave me alone)

No.  No I won’t.  Not yet.  Five minutes.

The show didn’t start.  At 8:30, people were getting restless.  The big scoreboard/clock/advertising thingy displayed girls in the front few rows giggling and lifting their shirts or making out with a guy.  People cheered.  Two girls kissed.  The arena roared with baritone cheers.  The canned music that “GNR” chose grew louder.  People stomped their feet in stampeding unison.  8:33PM.  Five minutes.  I can do it.  FIVVVVE minutes.  I lit another cigarette and sucked hard on it, holding in the smoke like I was smoking a joint.  I sipped my soda, feeling like an outsider.  8:38PM.

(He won’t’ leave me alone…………no, no, no)

Should I leave?  I was starting to believe I would get a beer.  I started thinking that the concession stand was about a five minute walk, so instead of giving myself empty promises such as having a beer in five minutes and knowing it will be another five then maybe I should start walking NOW so that the beer will be in my HAND in five minutes!!!

(I used ta do a little but a little wouldn’t do
So the little got more and more
I just keep tryin’ ta get a little better
Said a little better than before
I used ta do a little but a little wouldn’t do
So the little got more and more
I just keep tryin’ ta get a little better
Said a little better than before)

The lights dimmed.  The stage lights buttered the stage  yellow.  Music.  My salvation.

I can’t recall now if it was an opening act or not.  I can’t recall how long I endured the show, but I made it til the end – sans alcohol.  I started to cry at one point and I laboriously dragged myself to a concession stand …. and had an ice cream.  It was the best one I ever had.   I felt self-conscious having ice cream at a concert – such a wholesome and even childish treat, certainly not the gritty badass type of treat I thought I wanted.

(We been dancin’ with
Mr. Brownstone
He’s been knockin’
He won’t leave me alone)

If I could do it all again, then I guess it doesn’t matter because I’m sober today.  But I tortured myself.  I really did.  And it was a close one.

(Now I get up around whenever
I used ta get up on time ……….)

The only thing that stood between me and that promised five-minute beer was the dimming of lights.  That’s a pretty thready thread to dangle from.

(………………..  But that old man he’s a real mutha****er
Gonna kick him on down the line……………………………)

(Lyrics:  Mr. Brownstone by Guns N’ Roses …… and while I know Mr. Brownstone isn’t about BOOZE, it’s about addiction and I relate……….)

Another First Meeting – Or Two More First Meetings ……..

It’s amazing how much power I gave the chairpersons.  I know now it’s simply service work and the chairperson is just a small cog in a big wheel.  At the time, I saw them as powerful and at the top of the pecking order.  I would go up and ask them questions – whether they were male or female, young or old.

I already wrote about my FIRST first meeting.  But there were other first meetings.  They all seemed like firsts, especially with the years spanning between them.  But these were close-ish together.

1.  Wednesday Night at 8PM in 2002 – This was my first meeting in a while.  My reasons for going were always the same.  I drew a line in the sand and announced to myself “when I start doing THAT, I’m quitting.”  And I would.  For a couple of days or so.  Then I’d draw the line in the sand a little further out.  But now the stakes were getting higher and I went to a meeting because I was getting violent AND blacking out.  In the instance that drove me to not only go to this meeting, but to call the hotline in the wee early morning hours, was violence.  Domestic violence.  I was the aggressor.  I went to the meeting and sobbed.  People would take an interest in me and ask what was wrong and I gushed. I gushed the details and no one batted an eyelash and to me, it was the worst thing I had EVER done.  One man asked how much I had drank and I told him.  I forget the ounces/liters/pints/quarts/measurements ….. but he whistled and shook his head.  He asked why I wasn’t at ______________ [the name of the local detox].  I shrugged.  He suggested I buy candy.  “There’s lots of sugar in alcohol ……. candy will help.”

2.  Friday Night at 6:30PM in 2002 – now the meetings were growing in frequency. I think this one was two month’s later and it was the beginning of putting together 2 months.  TWO months.  But I didn’t know that at the time and couldn’t possibly imagine that.  It was a small room with brick walls.  The chairman ultimately took me under his wing, introducing me to his girlfriend and other ladies he knew to be respectable. He ALWAYS checked on me if he saw me at a meeting.  I felt important.  A CHAIRMAN was checking in with me.  I had no idea that he was just another guy.  I think he had 3 years then and it seemed like an infinity to me.  I couldn’t fathom having THREE whole years.  I went there because I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.  There was no clap of thunder, no parting of the heavens, no epiphany, no jackpot……   the night before, I had one shoe on and was intending to go to the package store.  I thought, “Why don’t I just stop tonight?  Like for practice?”  I had no idea I was beginning to think of sobriety as “one day at a time.”  I planned to possibly drink the next day, but I didn’t.  I went to a meeting, fully expecting I might drink the next day – but I didn’t.  I went to a meeting.

That last one, that “Friday Night” in 2002 is a special day to me.  It’s the day I had the requirement for AA MEMBERSHIP: a desire to stop drinking.  That genuine desire came then – even if it’s not my sobriety date because I had to experiment some more – but that was the beginning of my AA membership. I didn’t get a laminated ID card and I was never issued a number.  But it’s special to me.

My First Sober Birthday.

My first real sobriety date was October 31, 2002.  I obtained 2 months after that and that was the longest stretch I could think of since my age had been in the single digits.

Was I crazy?  Halloween fell on a Thursday and that weekend involved lots of house parties, bar parties, and unabashed drinking.  My birthday falls on November 4th – and that was Monday.  Basically I was resigning myself to being sober on Halloween, for 2 nights of festivities and then the eve of my birthday AND my birthday when there was no shame in announcing it and collecting the free drinks and free shots and free mixed drinks and …. and …. consuming the Heinekens from AMSTERDAM that I had squirreled away in my mom’s fridge.  Heineken from The Netherlands is another animal, if you are thinking of the green-bottle skunky things we Americans are exposed to.  I kept them at mom’s because I knew myself well enough that if I was on a binge, those things would become fodder for deepening drunkenness – it would be shamelessly guzzled and not admired and sipped.   I saved them for my birthday.

I started going to meetings.  I hit two on Friday, two on Saturday, two on Sunday.  By Monday? I was soaking in a hot bath and sobbing like a two-year old.  I hadn’t told my mother that I was going to AA because then there would be no backing out.  Once I told her?  Those beers from Amsterdam were history.  I sobbed and cried.  I cried because it wasn’t FAIR.  I cried because I wanted those god damned beers.  I cried because I lost my best friend ……. and worst enemy.    I cried because mom knew. I cried because I was ashamed. I should have seen it coming. I should have stopped ages ago.  I cried because my body felt like a raw nerve – the shaking, the anxiety, the jumpiness, the sleeplessness, the sense that someone was standing just within my peripheral vision and I’d start when I turned to see them disappear – I had the sense it was a small man and he wore black.  Was I hallucinating?  I couldn’t be.  Just one of ‘dem things.  But if I didn’t look at him, he’d gravitate a little closer until I did.  I had to hold a glass of anything with two hands, never filling it more than halfway.  I wanted coffee so bad but it made it worse.  I could hardly sit still.  I guzzled.  I guzzled soda. I guzzled milk.  I guzzled water. I guzzled like some alcoholic desperately trying to cop a buzz but being impotent to do so.  I cried because the cravings seemed insurmountable.  I sobbed because this was how I was spending my f*^#@!g birthday ……. sobbing in a bathtub.

My bathroom was hideous (I rented and therefore couldn’t personally take credit for its tackiness).  It was painted crudely in a sickly seafoam green with a stenciled design along the top with hunter green octopuses (or were they navy blue? Can’t recall), orange-yellow starfish, and burgundy sharks.  This alone was a bad environment for someone that was, for lack of a better term, detoxing.  I didn’t think of myself as detoxing. I mean …. I wasn’t THAT bad.  I didn’t go to the hospital to detox because :  #1..  I wasn’t THAT bad.  #2.  I wanted to be able to drink at the drop of a hat. I didn’t want to have to sign out of somewhere if I changed my mind. I didn’t want to argue with some nurse or some counselor. I wanted the freedom to revert back to what I know.  I just felt safer knowing I could change my mind if the pain got too great.

The troubling matter was that I had told my mom.  She was trained to work in a detox, but her nursing career took her elsewhere.  There was no f*&^%$#g way I could tell her “I overreacted. I’m not an alcoholic.”  I could do that with most anyone else in my circle of friends or family.  But not her.  And telling her was a big step.

I don’t remember anything else about that birthday, nothing but the sobbing as the steam dissipated, crying as the tub cooled from near scalding to tepid, cooled to lukewarm and then to cool.  My skin was raw in places where I had scrubbed and scrubbed like I could clean away this ugliness.  My feet and fingers were horrendously wrinkled.  I wrapped up in a towel, threw myself on my bed, and cried some more.  This time it was tearless.

At the time, it was the end of the world as I knew it.  What I didn’t know was that I was that much closer to a most beautiful world, a glorious world beyond my wildest dreams.

A Place to Come To: Alcoholic’s Anonymous

I was wearing a green v-neck sweater and leggings.  I remember this well because my head was hung down as I trudged up the narrow cement path to the side door of the church.  This had to be the place to go …. there were people smoking outside.  I remember their talking and laughing and thinking how peculiar it was …. to laugh when you can’t drink.

It was a sunny September day – some September day in the ’90’s – with a balmy breeze and the scent of autumn leaves mingling with scents of summer.  The beauty of the day seemed misplaced considering how I was feeling.  I smelled the church – that woodwork smell with coffee and an underlying must.  The room was bright with wooden floors and metal chairs.  There were big blue books everywhere.  I snatched one and quickly started thumbing through it, trying to look busy.  I felt like I was in high school and I was the letch with no friends.

This was a noontime meeting.  The room was teeming with retirees and a handful of unemployed folks.  One teenager was there; she was pretty.  Whose kid was she?  The man sitting next to the gavel and brochures spoke in a low voice, a French accent.  People looked at me with curiosity, and I held the book closer to my face and affected a look of being engrossed.  I desperately wanted someone to talk to me and was equally horrified by the thought that they might.

The French man banged the gavel and read some kind of intro – which today I would call “the Preamble”:

Alcoholics Anonymous
is a fellowship of men and women
who share their experience, strength
and hope with each other so that
they may solve their common problem
and help others recover from
The only requirement for membership
is a desire to stop drinking. There
are no dues or fees for AA
membership. We are self supporting
through our own contributions.
AA. is not allied with any sect,
denomination, politics, organization,
or institution: does not wish to engage
in any controversy; neither endorses
nor opposes any causes. Our primary
purpose is to stay sober and help other
alcoholics achieve sobriety.”

I remember being caught up in the requirement for membership (the ONLY requirement):  a desire to stop drinking.  I suddenly felt out of place. I wasn’t sure I had that desire.  I knew something had to change.

Someone read “how it works.”  In it are the 12 steps.  I couldn’t wrap my head around them.  It sounded like a lot to do.  I was drawn to the first step, I remember.  “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.”

My life was damned unmanageable.  I had had my first REAL blackout.  I had them before, just a couple of hours here and there.  Sometimes I’d be amazed to hear that I was at _____________ [insert bar name] the night before.  I’d be baffled when so-and-so came up to me and laughed/reminisced about what we did the night before – and then I’d be angry.  They were messing with me.  I couldn’t NOT remember that, could I?  But this time was more than a slice of a night and it was more than an hour or two.  It spanned from 2 in the afternoon until the following morning.  My then-boyfriend was pissed at me and would not tell me why.  His roommate was livid as well.  No explanation.  Just a glare and folded arms, a quick head cocked toward the door.  They were so pissed they wouldn’t even speak to me long enough to tell me to leave.

And here I was.  I must be crazy.  I cautiously scanned the group of people in this church room, noting that they were from all walks of life.  Some were professionals, some were old , and what was the story with this teenager?

I kept thinking I was in my 20’s.  I had my life ahead of me.  My mind raced with scenarios such as my wedding day – and I wasn’t planning on my then-boyfriend being my husband; he was already married technically.  As I write this, he sits in prison for dealing drugs.  But my wedding day …. no champagne?  What about Christmas?  That would be here before I knew it.  No cognac?  And New Year’s Eve?  What about my birthday? I loved going out to the bar and having a nice chum tell everyone it was my birthday – free beers, free shots , free free freedom.  Now I felt chained to abstinence.  There was something about being in a meeting that felt like a call to action.

“Hi. I’m __________ and I’m an alcoholic.”

“Hi, _________________!”

I sat and sulked.  People announced anniversaries coming up and there were rounds of applause.  I was sober for about 8 hours, I think.  They read a chapter from the Big Book. I don’t remember the story, but I remember hungrily reading it and identifying with it.  The ensuing discussion went around the room.  People talked about being homeless.  Shit, I wasn’t THAT bad.  People lost jobs. I wasn’t THAT bad.  Shit, if I ever got THAT bad, I’d stop.  Jeeez.  Lost husbands, lost children, lost wives, crashed up cars …….. one man talked about his worst blackout when he ‘came to’ in a train station and didn’t know where. It turned out it was in Chicago – which is halfway across the country from here.  I leaned forward, hungrily consuming his words.  I knew that might have been me.  I mean, who knows?  Apparently he was BENT on going to a Cub’s game and his friends couldn’t talk him out of it.  Someone had to wire him money to get him home.  He had to wander around and read the teleprompters to ascertain where he was.    He had no idea.

Then my turn.  I gushed about the blackout.  Not only had I blacked out, but I had broken one of my rules. I drank before noon.  With every pause, someone would shout “keep talking.”  I’d pause again, choking back tears:  “Don’t stop!”  At the end, an older lady who had been knitting during the entire meeting led every lady over to me.  They hugged me and gave me their phone numbers.  And that teenager? Her, too. I resented that.  How could some KID know more than I do?  She was sober for 18 months – but she looked squeaky clean.  How could she possibly relate to me and my sordid life?

I can’t say my sobriety started there.  I think I got a week.  What led me to drink was a friend moving away and our having a going-away party for her.  I couldn’t just …. drink SODA, could I?

So that wasn’t my start in AA, but their support for this newcomer was remarkable.  I knew I had a place to come to.  And I came back many times spanning many years before it started to sink in.