Day Seven of Sobriety

Early Phone Calls

It was in the mornings that Lydia had been most aware of her alcoholism. The brushing of her teeth often resulted in her dry heaving and coughing into her bathroom sick; her head aching and spinning. On more than one occasion, Lydia found herself splayed on the bathroom floor, dizzy and weak. It was disgusting and messy. The headaches and the lethargy had so long been a part of her life they seemed the normal, casual, expected.

 

By the end of her first week of sobriety, Lydia was shocked what mornings could feel like.

Lydia stood hunched over the granite countertop, the coffee cup warming her hands. She stared at the pristine, white ceramic cup against her aging hands. Those hands had held husbands and babies. They planted gardens and cooked meals, taken temperatures and mended clothes. They had calculated algebra problems and molded clay dioramas. But they had never had a job. A job, job. Not a church volunteer canned food drive or a book fair at the school, but an actual got paid money for services rendered job. She never thought she would need one. But then Henry left. When she was drinking, she would have moments of panic, but she tried to forget. For the past couple of days, though, it was all she could think about.

Lydia had been betrayed. He left her. He promised her fidelity and friendship forever. Lydia knew her drinking had been a problem, but she only drank because he was never there. If only he had come home for dinner. If only he realized how much she missed the children, how alone she felt. If only he had cared as much about her as he had his job, she wouldn’t have had to drink.

She wanted to call him and scream at him. And she wanted to tell him what she was sober and cry to him and let him hold her. She hated him and she loved him. He abandoned her, but he was still her best friend. She wanted to tell him she had been sober for seven days, that this time was different, but he had heard all the promises before. He wouldn’t believe her. And she couldn’t blame him.

She couldn’t call him. She could call a friend, but she didn’t have any friends. Not real ones. She had lunch friends and shopping friends and mom of her children’s friends. But as she clicked each one off in her brain, there was not a single person she trusted with AA.

And then she remembered the list. Lydia walked over to junk drawer beneath the phone and opened it. There, atop the stapler, pens, and forgotten bills laid the white envelope with names and numbers scrawled on one side. Lydia gingerly picked up the packet and returned to her place at the kitchen counter. She ran her fingers around the edges of the white envelope, looking at all the names of the women. She turned the contents out and looked at the pamphlets as they tumbled out onto the countertop. “This is AA” “Is AA for you?” “A Newcomer Asks.” The pamphlets were all titled as if they were CBS afterschool specials. Lydia smiled.

She picked up the envelope and her coffee and walked into the living room. She wedged herself in the corner of the sofa Indian style, as if she were a little girl, and pulled a throw pillow up close against her chest. She looked down at the phone and slowly dialed the first number on her list. After the third ring, a woman answered, “Hello?”

“Hello. Ummm… This is Lydia. You gave me your phone number at a meeting last week…”

The Spiritual Tools are Laid at my Feet. Now if I Just Picked Them up.

Spiritual ToolsHere’s how it went down: First we got in an argument. Not a real argument, a baby one. A spat. The kind of argument a couple has when they’ve been together for a while and one of them, namely him, thinks he is being funny and the other one, namely me, doesn’t. And so I walked away.

But then, shoot, I needed to remind him to do something, so I texted him. No response. So, I texted him again, nice this time, please and thank you. Still no response. I texted him a third time, a little huff in this text. Silence. Here is where most people would stop, thinking that maybe he just needed a little time to himself, but not I. I texted him again. Indignant and self-righteous. And again. Self-pity. As I look back over the texts, I can see the downward spiral of alcoholic thinking from sanity to anger to self-aggrandized woe is me.

Three hours later, his text messages started rolling in. “Hey. I haven’t heard from you all day and then a few minutes ago, I got a whole bunch of texts.” And “I’m sorry.” And the kicker… “I called the guy. I sent you an email telling you everything he said.” Turns out the cell phone system was down. He hadn’t receive any of my text messages over the course of the whole day.

“It is plain to see that a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness. To the precise extent that we permit these, do we squander the hours that might have been worth while… we began to see that the world and its people really dominated us. In that state, the wrong-doing of others, fancied or real, had power to actually kill,” (BB 66).

“The wrong-doings of others, fancied or real.”

I cannot even begin to tell you how vivid my imagination is. It will highjack my thoughts in an instant. To prove it, I spent the entire day obsessed at something that existed only in my mind. By the time I realized my mistake, I was emotionally and physically exhausted. I had, in fact, completely squandered my day.

An any given point in those eight hours, I could have written a quick gratitude list of all the things he does for me. I could have meditated. I could have done a spot check inventory. I could have simply given him the benefit of the doubt. If he needed space, I should have given it to him. If I was worried, I should have called him, like big people do, instead of continuing to text. If I didn’t want to call him, I could have called a friend or read the book. The friend would have told me I was being crazy. The book would have reinforced it.

AA has given me the tools to deal with life, but I have to be willing to pick them up and use them. The Big Book tells me, “The spiritual life is not a theory. We have to live it,” (83). I cannot find acceptance through osmosis. I cannot retain sanity through blind wishing. I have to work towards it.

Luckily, I did no lasting damage to my relationship. We mended fences quickly and moved on. But my crazy has left a lasting impression on me. It was a reminder, a little nudge, that I will never be so sane that I do not have to work this program. And thank goodness for that.

Third Day of Sobriety

Obsession

Usually, even the worst of us can stay off the drink for a day or two if we are seriously motivated by the adequate amount of force and calamity. The real trouble often begins around day three when the brain starts to convince one that maybe they have made too big a deal over whatever currently has them in a knot. I can stop. It ain’t no thing. I bet I could have one beer or two. Everything will be okay.

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Lydia was conscience of being awake long before any move was made to get up out of bed. Instead, she laid there in the semi darkness of the curtained bedroom and tried to assess her physical and mental state of being.

The rhythmic beating of her heart seemed to pulsate throughout her body. She sensed she could feel the blood running through her arteries and back again. Next Lydia moved on to her stomach. She had eaten too much last night. In the mood to ride the wave of hunger, Lydia gorged on junk food and ice cream. It had made her feel better in the moment, but as the laid down to sleep, her stomach, unused to such sustenance, surged and gurgled. But by morning, everything seemed to be quiet again. With her eyes still closed, Lydia promised to take it easy with the food today.

As to her mental state, Lydia did not want to get out of bed. She had an odd sense of energy running through her, and yet simultaneously, she was so exhausted, she thought she could easy melt back into sleep. She had only fallen asleep a few short hours ago after hours of trying. Stress, fear, questions, had raced in her mind for an unendurable length of time. Having awoken to a sense of calm, Lydia was unwilling to let go even as her body was aching for movement and a shower. Lydia opened one eye, then the other, as the realization slowly started coming into focus. She couldn’t quite think through the thought. It was still fuzzy and out of focus. And yet there it was.

Her body seemed to be resisting the choices her mind was making. Was her whole life an ongoing battle between the desires of her mind and the reality of her body? How could that be? Weren’t they the same thing? Doesn’t the body support the mind? Wasn’t the mind the superior entity?

With a shake of her head, Lydia dislodged the thought and moved off towards the shower.

 

As she pulled into the mall parking lot, Lydia realized going to the meeting was a little easier than the day before and a lot earlier than the day before that. She was starting to get a feel for the layout of the club. She was starting to recognize some of the faces. If it wasn’t home exactly, at least it wasn’t terrifying.

Lydia ordered a hot tea and made for the meeting room. She was a few minutes early, and the room was empty. Lydia had realized over the last couple of days that people tended to walk through the door just as the meeting was starting. Lydia walked over to the large poster on the wall labeled, “The Twelve Steps.”

“Step 1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol- that our lives had become unmanageable.”

“Powerless over alcohol.” Lydia knew from endless TV shows and movie, from culture, that admission of the problem was the first step. But it looked different in this format. Powerless. It sounded so much more ominous and permanent and old fashioned than a simple, “Admitted we occasionally drank too much” or “Admitted we sometimes got a little out of control.” Lydia wasn’t even sure if she knew what that word mean. Powerless. Lydia kept rolling the word around in her mouth, tasting it on the tip of her tongue. Lydia was conscious to pick a seat for the meeting that had a full view of the steps. She took a sip of her hot tea. Powerless.

No Matter What

Tidal Wave

I remember watching John Cusack’s movie 2012 a few years ago. I don’t exactly remember the plot, but I do remember at some point, a giant tidal wave is about to engulf a cruise ship. The captain of the ship, a man depicted to have some length of sobriety, takes a drink in the last moments of his life. I thought a lot about that drink over the course of the day. Later that night, I went to a meeting and questioned my sobriety: if death were an absolute certainty, would I drink? In response, two of my dearest friends told me it was time to join the “No Matter What” club. No matter what happens today, I will not drink. No matter what. There is no caveat if something happens to a parent or a loved one. If the man leaves. If the job is lost. If the tidal wave bears down.

I think in early sobriety, we can sidestep the idea of being sober forever. Although we sometimes minimize it by saying just, “Put the plug in the jug,” setting aside a drink for a day or two or eight is extremely difficult.Thinking about never having the crutch of alcohol ever again was, for me, really and incredibly terrifying. As a person who drank every day, I had zero conception how not to drink. I needed the option to drink again. I needed the freedom to say, “If I want to drink tomorrow, I will drink tomorrow, but I will stay sober today.” For the first two years of my sobriety, every morning in the shower I would say, “Today, I am not going to drink,” like a mantra. Some days, I sat on the floor of my shower and cried. Some days I screamed in rage at God. But every day, I said, “My name is Ann and I am an alcoholic. And today, I am not going to drink.” And it worked.

But at some point, when the boot of alcohol what removed from my throat, my life just became more life-ish. Small and large events happened that made me want to disappear for a little bit, a few hours. I craved a little escape, a break, a time out. And that is when the not drinking actually became harder.

When AAs talk about the first year as a gift, that is what they are talking about. It’s one thing not to drink when the chips are down and I’m facing an eviction and I have zero friends and no job. It’s another thing to not drink when I’m all alone at night and there’s every reason in the world to drink and no one to stop me. It’s been in those dark hours that I’ve held on to my sobriety with both hands and the idea of “No Matter What.”

I’ve come to the realization over the years that the conscience decision to not drink regardless of any situation is the great determinant between those that stay sober for the duration and those who do not. I think at some point in our sobriety, we have to look in the mirror, look ourselves in the eye, and make the resolution to not drink, no matter what.

Day Two of Sobriety

Alcoholic Hobo

As the second morning of her sobriety turned into her second afternoon of sobriety, Lydia found herself increasingly restless. She had tried to watch TV, but TV had made her want a glass of wine. She had tried to clean, but cleaning made her want a glass of Vodka. Lydia didn’t want to go shopping or call up a friend, two additional activities that usually ended with cocktails. The country club seemed an equally bad idea, and also there might have been an incident the last time she was there. Sigh. There was, Lydia realized, little she did that didn’t involve drinking. By two o’clock Lydia found herself walking in circles from her living room to her kitchen to the dining room to the foyer and back to the living room.

With a sigh, Lydia grabbed her keys and purse and walked out the backdoor.

As she entered the club, Lydia saw it was a little busier than the day before. Several men were watching television and throwing cards and a small group of women sat around a table talking. She ordered a hot tea from the coffee bar and was about to go sit in the meeting room when she heard her name. One of the girls at the table was waving. It was Aiyana from the day before, the girl who had collected the phone numbers for her. “Hey. Hey Lydia. Over here.”

As she moved towards the table, Lydia suddenly as if she was an awkward teenager on the first day of school and the cool girls had just invited her over to their lunch table.

“How are you?”

Lydia had every intention of answering in her customarily dismissive way, but to her surprise the simple, “I don’t know,” came out. All three of the women paused momentarily and then began to subtly nod in acknowledgment and understanding.

The two women with Aiyana were around the same age as Lydia. The one introduced as Tracy was an English professor at the University of Houston. June was a stay at home mom. Lydia was a bit surprised how normal the women seemed. They inquired as to how she was feeling and if they could do anything for her. For a few minutes, Lydia could have easily convinced herself that she was out to lunch with some of her closest girlfriends; well, only if girlfriends had been candid and kind.

After a few minutes, the group moved towards the meeting room. Lydia noticed some of the same people as the day before. Paul was there. Sammy was too. Tessie came in a little late and waved as she took her seat. Lydia tried to follow the readings, but she had trouble keeping up. It seemed like a lot of information. She watched as some of the people smiled knowingly and still others settled themselves in for the meeting, sipping coffee. Once again, Lydia was somehow surprised at how normal they all looked. She didn’t realize it yesterday, but as she looked over the faces, there seemed to be a general cross section of age and race and gender. Lydia realized she thought alcoholics were mostly hobos with scraggly beards and mended tops hats with flowers sticking out of the top. But these people looked like students and housewives and executives and mechanics, like people.

The meeting went by quickly. The topic was about fear. Lydia couldn’t figure out what fear had to do with alcohol. After the meeting, she thought about asking Aiyana, but changed her mind. It was getting late and she once again felt overwhelmed and exhausted. And hungry. As she walked to her car, Lydia looked up at the late afternoon sky and smiled. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been hungry.

Day 1: Desire Chip

Desire CHip

There is a psychology to drinking. Everything has to be just so. Not at the end, though. The end is a fabrication, a lie we tell ourselves. We are not drunks. We are misunderstood. Put upon. Lied to. We are cultured, educated, not of this world. Outside is a cruel existence which tramples on our inner souls. So we push people away with both hands and a “Fuck You” to boot. We are lost, confused, scared. We live in continual fear of other people and of ourselves. We fear what we have done. We fear what we still need to do. The thoughts which lie inside our head, coupled with our erratic emotional state, make us feel like all of life is insurmountable. And then we want to die.

 

It was an oppressively bright, sunny day as Lydia drove to the meeting. It was hot. Too hot. Too bright. The kind of hot and bright that only comes in late August as everyone curses yet another cerulean day. Houstonians choked on smog as sweat came rolling down their foreheads and into their eyes. Lydia turned up the air conditioner another notch and dreamed of October.

Her brain was in a fog. It made it hard to think, but she figured that was probably a good thing. If she had stopped and seriously thought about what she was about to do, she knew she would not go. So instead, Lydia concentrated on trying to find the defunct place in the defunct mall that she knew none of her friends shopped at ever.

Lydia tentatively stepped into the club, one foot and then the other, as if the mere stepping into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting branded one for life. She looked to either side of her, and sighed a sigh of relief as she realized she was mostly alone in the room. She was scared someone would try to talk to her. She didn’t want to talk. She wouldn’t have been able to express herself anyways. Lydia tried to look like she belonged in this room, while simultaneously fearing she really did belong. Lydia suddenly thought of the Groucho Marx joke, “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept people like me as a member.” She smiled to herself. Lately it seemed if all of life was some sort of cruel, inside joke that she could not understand.

She looked down at her watch. The meeting was supposed to start in ten minutes. Maybe she had the wrong time. There were a couple people smoking out front, two women at a table in the corner reading a book, and a man selling coffee. Lydia smirked; maybe the other members had decided to go out for a midafternoon cocktail.

Lydia looked around the club. It was bigger that she thought it would be. And comfortable. Was comfortable the word? Anyways, it was clean. Off to the side was a large room. Lydia figured it was the meeting room from the way the chairs were arranged. It was an inoffensive beige color. Along the walls were pithy sayings, “First things first” and “Think, think, think” and the infamous twelve steps. Lydia shook her head. This was her salvation? More like a farce. She should leave, she thought. But somewhere in the back of her head, Lydia could just not make the motion happen to walk out. Instead, she hung her head and silently began to cry. What was to become of her?

A minute later, laughter started migrating towards the room. Lydia quickly wiped her eyes. She took a seat in the back row and righted her shoulders. It’s going to be okay, she whispered unconvincingly to herself. The door of the room opened, and four middle-aged men entered the room. Several of them were involved in a conversation that Lydia could not seem to follow. It may have been about fishing. Or Women. Instantly, Lydia was transfixed. All four men seemed to be happy, arguing in a good-natured way. Lydia realized she had not seen anyone genuinely laugh in a very long time. Life had been so difficult. So sad.

Suddenly, Lydia caught the eye of one of the men. Although she quickly averted her gaze, she was not quick enough. The man walked over to her, and stuck out his hand. “I’m Paul.”

Instantly, Lydia realized she should use a fake name. What’s her name? Her name? Her name? Lydia rung her hands trying to think her way out of the name situation as Paul stood staring at her.

“Ummm… Don’t take this the wrong way ma’am, but you new here?”

Lydia stared at the kind man blankly, still unable to come up with a name, and burst into tears anew.

“Guys, we got a new one here.” By this time all four men stood staring at Lydia.

“I know they say don’t pass the Kleenex box, but man, I hate to see them cry,” said one of the men.

“Shit, she’s fine.”

“It’ll get better. I promise.” Paul turned to the man by the door, “Sammy, get one of them girls up in here.”

A minute later, Lydia looked up as Sammy returned with a young girl in her twenties. She was pretty in tight blue jeans and long blonde hair. She flashed Lydia a smile full of promise and confidence. Lydia looked into her face for a second before she lowered her head back down. But even in that moment, Lydia knew something was different about the stranger. The woman looked neither fearful nor anxious. There was a calm to her that seemed to fill the room. Two of the men took seats on the opposite side of the room against the wall, while Paul and Sammy sat in the two wing chairs at the front of the room. All four men continued to talk in lowered tones. The mood in the room at shifted subtly as people began filing in through the double doors.

The girl who returned with Sammy took the seat next to Lydia. She did not speak. She just very quietly took Lydia’s right hand and held it in her own. At first Lydia was startled by the singular act. Lydia had not felt the touch of sincerity in a long time. The woman’s hand was warm. As Lydia returned the grasp, she could feel a sense of peace work up her arm and enter her body.

A moment later, Sammy began to talk. “Welcome to the regular 3:15 meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.” Lydia tried her best to concentrate, to understand all the things that people were saying. Many people seemed to be talking about how and why they got sober. Some of the stories seemed to be funny because people were laughing. But as hard as she tried, Lydia could not seem to grasp what was happening around her. All she knew was that she could not stop crying, and that for the whole hour, Lydia’s hand was wrapped in a warm embrace of a complete stranger.

By the end of the meeting, Lydia was exhausted. She had cried herself dry and now all she wanted was a warm bed. Lydia felt pressure on her hand. She looked up and into the comforting eyes of the girl. “At the end of the meeting, Sammy will ask if anyone wants a Desire Chip. A Desire Chip is a personal commitment to stay sober for the next twenty-four hours. If you want one, you will have to walk up there by yourself and get it.” Lydia let this information sink it. Twenty-four hours without a drink. It seemed such a short time, one day, what was one day? And yet, the idea of not drinking was petrifying. Suddenly, Lydia realized that the room had become quiet, and everyone was looking at her. Apprehension and fear fill the air. Slowly, Lydia raised her body and walked to the front of the room. In Sammy’s outstretched hand, was a circular, silver coin that looked like a half dollar. Lydia took the coin and looked at it. Sammy moved to give Lydia a hug. It caught her off guard. And yet, as Lydia took the hug offered, she could almost feel her body absorb strength and compassion. Paul then stepped forward. He gave Lydia a hug that felt like forgiveness. It all happened too quickly, felt so foreign, and so beautiful. Lydia turned to walk back to her seat and for the first time realized that the entire room was clapping for her. She blushed crimson as she made her way back to her seat.

As she sat, from behind her, somebody slapped her on the back, “Its made from recycled beer cans. If you put it on your tongue and it melts, it means you can drink.” The man broke out in laughter at his own joke. The woman next to him giggled. Lydia looked down the coin they called a “Desire Chip.” It was made of a thin, light metal. On one side of the chip was a prayer, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” The other side of the Desire Chip had a triangle on it with the words, “Unity, Service, Recovery.” Along the top was the statement, “To thine own self be true.” Lydia turned the coin over and over in her hands as announcements were made. There was no way she was going to put that chip in her mouth.

Lydia looked up as everyone began to stand. The pretty girl once again helped Lydia. “We close the meeting by holding hands in a circle and saying the Lord’s Prayer.” Lydia could not helped but be surprised as her other hand was grabbed by a young man. He could not have been more than twenty. “Congratulations. Keep coming back.” Lydia just looked at him and nodded. She did not know what to say. This kid wasn’t even old enough to legally drink alcohol.

Then the meeting ended. Some people clapped. Some began talking. Some simply left. Lydia looked around, amazed at what she had just experienced. “Congratulations. I’m Aiyana.” Lydia turned around and saw a young Indian woman with beautiful, deep brown eyes. “We passed around a newcomer packet during the meeting. All the women’s phone numbers are on it. You can call any of us anytime you need to talk.”

Lydia took the outstretched envelope. On one side were about twenty different names and phone numbers. Lydia tried to imagine any scenario wherein she would call a complete stranger from off an envelope. “Thank you,” she stammered.

Lydia walked out of the club and into the scorching hot sun. Some people from the meeting, including the pretty girl who sat with her, were standing under a tree smoking.

As she began to pull away in her car, Lydia saw the young girl flag her down and run over. Lydia rolled down her driver’s side window. “Hey. My name’s Tessie. I hope you come back tomorrow. I’ll be here.”

“I’m Lydia,” Lydia said. “Thank you. I might.”

“Okay, Lydia. Just don’t drink, okay? Just for the rest of today. Then come back tomorrow. Twenty-four hours, remember?”

“Okay,” Lydia said as she looked down at the Desire Chip still encased in her palm. The girl began to walk back to the group under the shade tree. A few feet away, Tessie turned back around. “Hey, Lydia?” Lydia looked up. “Just so you know… You never have to feel this way again.”

 

If You are Sober and Stupid, Boring and Glum, Then You’re Doing it Wrong.

Studio 54 Cartoon

Some of my most favorites lines in the big book are, “For most normal folks, drinking means conviviality, companionship and colorful imagination… am I to be consigned to a life where I shall be stupid, boring, and glum?” (BB 151-152).

Let me start off by saying that I was born in a nice part of Houston, complete with bike trails and trees. My mom took me to church and sometimes bought me an ice cream cone after (Bubblegum of they had it; turtle if they didn’t). I had tons of books and art supplies and after school activities. My parents stressed good grades and participation on sports teams.

So, where I got this notion of drinking, I have no idea. No, no, not the notion of should I drink or why I drank. I got that. I mean the notion that alcoholics and drug addicts are brazen intellectuals and glamourous artists, pushing past the lines of conventionality into oblivion, the notion that alcohol and drugs allow one to experience life on a heightened, more surreal plane.

I decided that my perception of drinking is based not on the reality but fantasy. James Dean. James Bond. Hemingway on the Champs-Elysees. Andy Warhol at Studio 54. Hunter S. Thompson’s Las Vegas, “We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls…Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can, (Fear and Loathing). The realization that all my drug fantasies exist in an era before I was even cognizant of what drugs were, is only further evidence that I have invented my own duel existence.

The reality is, that’s not the way my drinking looked at all. There was no step and repeat in front of the Marshall House. I was a writer that never wrote. A schemer. A dreamer. I was neither glamourous nor charming. At best I was a bar fly and at worst a depressed, isolated drunk.

I am lucky that I am able to realize that my fantasies of drinking and drugging are a fictitious twist of my imagination. That’s not the case with many. There is a guy I hear that speaks of waxing poetically as he drinks. He doesn’t get it. There is a girl who, while she is at meeting, laments about the friends she is missing; maybe she doesn’t have to give them up after all. She doesn’t get it either.

When I got sober, I thought I would never again go out dancing, see a concert, or have sex. I never thought I would have interesting friends hell bent on making up for lost opportunities and time. I never thought of the sober artist as the creative one. That it would be my sober life that was the exciting, daring, fulfilling one.

Everyday I wake up, there is a change to do something spectacular. ( I usually just end up at work, but there’s always that chance). When the book says, “You will gain a new freedom and a new happiness,” I get that. I am no longer held by the confines of the bar stool or liquor bottle. My brain does not hurt. My mind is not hazy. I have passion and ambition and love. If you are sober and stupid, boring and glum, then you’re doing it wrong.