This is What You Do

2016

I stood in my kitchen, hands slightly palsied as I poured myself a glass of water from the sink.  I emptied the packet of Emergen-C into the tepid water, lodged a Walgreens brand women’s multivitamin into my mouth, and downed the entirety of what had then become a fizzy liquid.  This became routine for my summer mornings, mornings succeeding evenings of drinking where you all but convince yourself the following day it isn’t part of a bigger problem, how alcoholism is an antiquated term for something you clearly don’t have. The actual routine itself—the kitchen sink vitamin blitz— was really just an exercise in futility, as no amount of vitamins, powdered or pill form—would magically erase a hangover.  Yet, there I was, morning after morning, following said routine with foolish automaticity.  I’d concocted this before with unsuccessful results, in times worthy of suffering a hangover.  Like in June 2015 when a couple coworkers and I celebrated the end of the school year for a solid eight hours, concluding with me driving home like a true fucking idiot1. I’d convinced my equally drunk coworkers that I was fine (a lie), that I had been pacing with water all night (another lie), and that I was only five blocks away (a truth that made no difference). When I desperately chugged the fizzy water alongside a plate of ill-fated eggs the next day, there was a glimmer of hope it would soothe me; that hope was extinguished less than an hour later as a cocktail of powdered vitamins, hot sauce-laced eggs and splenetic bile made a u-turn and ended up outside my body, mostly in the toilet. 

1 see also: reckless piece of shit, careless asshole

 

On this morning in 2016, however, things were different. As I balanced myself with my hand on the counter, post-vitamin consumption, a powerful observation came to me:

I’m feeling…alright.  In fact, the last month of mornings were alright, too.  This is doable.

I had a brief, fleeting thought of accomplishment, as if I’d found a vaccine to aid society which was luckily and justly replaced with a feeling far worse than all the plates of eggs and Emergen-C packets in the world. The stark realization; my lack of hangover wasn’t the product of my magic water/pill routine.  What shook me was how normal it all felt, how accustomed my body and mind became to operating in a perma-fried state, how I was accepting of how doable it felt.  The goal posts of basic health were moving into careless, dangerous territory and the only person moving them was me.  Instead of living healthily as I often lied about, I lowered my expectation of health to assuage my guilt and convince myself life was fine, fulfilling. This wasn’t a typical rock bottom moment; there were numerous questionable and appalling occasions prior to this morning, all of which qualified as reasons to get sober. This moment was quiet, mediocre. It was too normal to be normal; I was finding ways to normalize my behavior, to fit my life into a bleak pattern, not fit a healthy pattern into my life.

Is this what I’m actually doing?

I, like so many others around my age, often categorized drunken nights and shenanigans as either one-offs or simple rites of passage.
This is what you do when you’re underage

This is what you do when you’re twenty one

This is what you do in your twenties

This is what you do before turning thirty

Allowing myself to get drunk didn’t make my depression disappear.  Giving permission to drink in quiet, unnoticed excess did nothing to curtail my anxiety or my life’s worth of childhood and adult trauma.  If anything, alcohol gave my depression, my anxiety, my pent up trauma fertile ground to grow. No matter how often I’d weed them out, cut them down, cover them up—-they always grew back stronger, more crippling than before.

I quit drinking on July 5th, 2016, two days after my 29th birthday. I subsequently went to therapy both for myself as well as my fledgling marriage. I found it irksome having to participate in a world where alcohol seemed to be everywhere, wagging its finger in my sallow face, mocking me.  Disordered drinking became disordered eating in the first few months; I went as far as buying a can of Funfetti frosting to use as dip for my graham crackers.  I steered clear from the bars, the places in which my life’s play was aired on repeat. I had become a fixture at places like the Ivy Taproom, the Union Hall and my coveted, windowless Elbow Room. I wasn’t in charge of the play of my life, as being a fixture wasn’t being the star of the play; I existed more like a prop in each scene.  

I was thankful for the summer gig my friend Bryan got me, which was cleaning a few office and warehouse spaces at night, as it forced me to stay away from all the familiar, walkable places.  I instead listened to the DNC that August while lugging a Ghostbuster-esque vacuum on my back, sweating profusely.

I ended up finding local AA meetings because I was running out of steam going solo. Doing a Google search while sitting with my marionberry pie and 6th refill of coffee after work, I was intrigued by the name and summary of one meeting: wet brains: not about god. It was—pick your adverb— ironically/oddly/cruelly held at a historic school building turned event venue owned by a local brewery/restaurant. You know, the kind of place where one can wander with their IPAs or cocktails and tag themselves in an Instagram post as being “in detention”, one of the many bar enclaves in the building.  Whether it was meant to be a form of exposure therapy or something else, I had to give it a hard pass; I’d been wasted there too many times before, the wafting smell of hops and tatertots stirring unhappy memories. After that, I went to a women’s meeting held in a church where I was the youngest person by a good thirty years. Someone imparted their Big Book with me at another meeting, one conspicuously called, “Rock Bottom”, that was held in an old building behind a deserted, former K-Mart. After a month of searching, I abandoned the 12 step program.  I appreciated the fact there was a community for people struggling with addiction, but I felt disengaged for reasons I couldn’t quite put my finger on until now; the problem, in addition to the higher power stuff and end of meeting hand holding chant, was how insignificant I felt among people who seemed to have been going to the same meeting together for years, who I assumed were all chummy and I was the odd one out. My anxiety pulsated through my body, much as it did all those years before in middle school, when I was ostracized and threatened for lamenting to Nadya how Carina was being bitchy. Add that to being one of only two 6th graders who came from my elementary school and the physical ravages of puberty on a girl with Samoan and Italian roots, life was an isolated shithole. I ended up sitting with girls who others called white trash; the girls who lashed out and/or were on behavior plans.  Girls who smoked in the bathroom, whose drug addicted dads sexually abused them most nights and whose mothers were either out of the picture, or worse, who were privy to the abuse and called them sluts for what was happening. Of all the places for a short, skinny and awkward biracial girl to sit, their table was the last place I imagined myself; they were accepting, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t wholly due to trying to survive.

I know now it was my own anxious projections that led me away from AA, but I also still know that even if that wasn’t the case, I likely still would have left; I’m telling you, that hand holding chant at the end was pretty weird for me.

Amazingly, I continued my work in therapy and sobriety.  I opened up my trauma wounds, worked through them and reaped the benefits of a happier self and a thriving marriage. In two years, I had begun to find myself; turning thirty felt better, more genuine than turning any age in my twenties.
Fast forward to late 2018: life was going really well, which may have been the reason I chose to begin drinking again, albeit incrementally.  I didn’t consider it a relapse at the time, mostly because if I did imbibe, it was literally from no more than two ounces of wine once a month or so, all of which would take an hour for me to finish.
You did so well the last two years

My inner voice was pitching me some worry, a small but effective dose of guilt.

You did so well the last two years it seemed to tell me. Why start now?

I concluded that my reasons for drinking were situational, and that I had done the work in therapy to address it. The warning inner voice was soon followed up by another voice, a more reasonable one. Hey, you’re older now, you’ve learned to drink responsibly.

2018, a phenomenal year filled with desert hikes and mountain climbs, was succeeded by 2019, a gigantic dumpster fire whose flames only grew with the added fuel that was 2020 and 2021.  

In March 2019, my therapist—-our therapist, the most incredible human who helped both of us heal from all angles—-died suddenly from cardiac arrest.

“Lori’s dead”, was the first thing my ex said over the phone after I groggily answered hello. I was at home fighting off hallmarks of the flu, the fever dreams and loose bowels being the worst. It rang so hollow; I didn’t want to believe it was real.

In June, my ex’s grandmother, an integral part of his growing up, passed away.  This was made exceptionally difficult by the 4,000 mile difference between us and family; he couldn’t fly out for the service. 

In October, a student of mine riding his bike to school was hit and killed. Staff was informed, but we had to go the entire day without saying anything until the family was notified; his six year old sister was eventually heard screaming and sobbing as her parents carried her out with the help of a chaplain.

January 1st, 2020: My ex moved out.  This was in the works since September but it was still a crushing blow to me.  He struggled being emotionally and intimately available throughout our marriage; I at first blamed him for giving up after our therapist died.  In a way, that wasn’t too far from the truth; we both became aimless and consumed with grief—mine being dealt with externally, his being bottled up internally.  I was later able to acknowledge that if only one person, no matter how gifted, was the only reason keeping us together, maybe it was better for us that we split.

2020 is a year that needs no introduction or explanation.  I will merely sum it up to this: it began with a marriage separation, and ended with a house fire.  Literally ended with my house and my life—all the memories of the last ten years I had with my ex—up in flames.  I escaped with the dogs and my purse, and the pajamas I was wearing in preparation for bed and ended up being displaced for a year and two months, living in places because of the goodwill of others.

My drinking slowly, sneakily increased in 2019, exploded in 2020 and carried over to December 2021.  At the start of this, I’d validated my drinking by only drinking good wine, and only with a good meal. Ergo, I began finding any reason to go for a meal.  I’d only drink one mimosa at the weekly brunch I had with my grandmother. This plan shifted to having no more than two mimosas at any breakfast, with any person.  It was reasonable because mimosas were mostly orange juice anyway. (A lie.)  At happy hour, I’d have one drink maximum.  I was living a single life, so happy hour three days a week was fine because hey, who doesn’t deserve to take the edge off after work? My thirties became synonymous with responsible fun; no longer was I binge drinking whatever beers were available like a true reprobate, I was now a refined drinker living out my prime years.

This is what you do in your thirties

Cue to March 2020: the global shutdown followed by my own shutdown. I was at the store with news of a pandemic all too new and confusing, a mere two days away from what I call the “Tom Hanks/NBA” watershed moment: the shutdown following Hanks’ covid diagnosis and the NBA pausing the season.  Along with one of the last remaining bleach bottles and Clorox wipes in my grocery cart was a bottle of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir.  It was acceptable, after all, because the world was in disarray and the bottle was more than twenty dollars.

Upon having to suddenly go from in-person teaching to navigating a students’ specific learning disabilities through a Zoom call, I no longer felt obligated to find justifiable justifications to drink.  Restaurants were closed, so what the hell; drink the red wine at home.  Alone. With only the dogs’ concern to worry about.  When I wasn’t picking up groceries from the local Kroger store, I’d dash to the convenience store, masked up and in stealth mode to purchase a 40oz pineapple Truly. I graduated to a case of Natty Ice seltzers because I convinced myself that a smaller can is a classier can, and everyone was talking about coping with alcohol like it was a punchline.

This is what you do during covid

I was too embarrassed to pull out the giant case of seltzers lest a neighbor see me, because I still cared what others thought. The fact that I literally hid the magnitude of my drinking, both from my car (wrapped in my giant puffy coat) as well as from others should have been a clue there was a problem, but I ignored it. 

Fast forward to December 2021. My boyfriend and I spent almost every day of Christmas break drinking festive peppermint patties, Montucky and lemonade shandys and vodka tonics.  I didn’t force him to drink; he, too, is an adult accountable for his own decisions, but I instigated it each and every day, replacing qualms with qualifiers: we aren’t going anywhere.  It’s vacation and we both deserve to relax.  It’s not like we 21 and getting fucked up at the bar, you know?

This is what you do during the holidays

Two days after Christmas is when I had my second kitchen sink moment. I was a walking blackout drunk; I had memory lapses and palsies when not drinking and had one particular blackout that almost warranted a call to emergency services, according to my boyfriend.  Mixing alcohol and antidepressants is dangerous enough, and it was something no longer sustainable.  I made the choice for sobriety because I had to prioritize my rapidly declining mental health over what became a daily need for a mental buzz. The lapses worried me, too; my boyfriend’s worry worried me more.  I stood at the bathroom mirror, fighting the urge to pop little blackheads nestled in the crease of my nostrils. When I looked at myself—truly stopped and stared at my reflection, the only thing I saw was a shell of a woman I once was. A woman functioning enough to maintain her job but desperately struggling to keep the last of her shit together. My kitchen sink moment was a bathroom sink moment this time around; there were similarities to 2016, but the biggest contrasts were how much higher the stakes and consequences were. I cried.

This isn’t what I want to do for the rest of my thirties.  

Or the rest of my life.

I’ve been sober since December 27th. On February 26th, I stopped saying ‘sobriety’ in place of ‘recovery’ because I’ve been a dry drunk, scraping by on white-knuckled survival alone.  I called my boyfriend a prick for having a beer, just one lousy beer, in front of me without having the urge to drink for weeks.  Ads for alcohol showing impossibly perfect hipsters partying on Brooklyn rooftops made me both want to vomit and cancel my Hulu subscription. I was bitter and irate, constantly yelling at other drivers on the freeway and having the urge to brake check somebody. I could barely make it home from work before unleashing an emotional fury because I was asked how my day was. Sure, I was sober but I was also an unrelenting asshole, not much better than when I was a drunk, unrelenting asshole, so I decided to shift course. I’m going back to therapy, getting outside more with the dogs and making microscopic goals I can maintain to add some measure of success to my day.  Alcohol use disorder will always be with me, part of me, in front of me as a hurdle to climb. It won’t be the definition of myself or my work, but it’s too insidious to pretend it isn’t a lifelong problem to work on.  I’m okay with this, though; this is both a familiar and foreign process, the only difference being that I’m older and have acknowledged that it’s okay to not know jack shit about any of this as long as you keep your mind open and go forward.

It’s 2022.  Life doesn’t get easier or harder, it just maintains its course.  So instead of wishing to get through this day/week/month/year/life so I can be content, I will work on being content so I can get through all of those things.

This isn’t just what you do.

It’s what I’ve chosen to do.

Warren P. Genesis

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