My sober date is September 23rd, which, coincidentally, is also my middle brother’s birthday. Zach has always been my harshest critic.
On Christmas Day, 2012, Zach staged an informal intervention in our Chicago living room after a particularly brutal Christmas Eve, during which I drank a bottle of champagne and told Luke’s Japanese teacher my life story in explicit detail over holiday dinner. The next morning, Zach said that if I didn’t change, he would remove me from his life. He said I was an embarrassment. A disaster. He couldn’t handle it.
My plan was to move back to Minneapolis from Chicago (where I’d gone to treatment and subsequently relapsed) on January 1, 2013. First, though, I would wreck myself on New Year’s Eve in Milwaukee with booze, speed, and hallucinogens. On New Year’s Day, I sat through breakfast with my friends, brainstorming ways to kill myself. I was sober for the next 20 months.
(For the sake of clarification, I’ve been sober three times: Once in 2012, then again in 2013, and finally from 2015 to now.)
I relapsed again in October 2014 and continued drinking for almost a year, right up to the end of my “European adventure.” I had moments of clarity throughout the trip. In Barcelona, I was told by multiple acquaintances that I was the drunkest at the all-night parties and could hardly articulate myself. I sobbed through the streets of Florence until the thought of sobriety popped into my head and provided brief relief (I couldn’t make it sober through the night, though). I tried to go to a meeting in Rome, but couldn’t find it. And then, finally, there was Prague.
On my first night in Prague, I walked up a grassy hill behind my hostel that offered a flawless view of the city. The next morning, I decided to be an adventurer and climb the other side. It had a dirt floor, unlike its grassy half, and was covered in dead trees and brush. But I was determined. I began my climb. The dirt made the steep hill so slippery that I had to scale it on my hands and knees and, halfway up, I realized that the hill doubled as a campground for homeless people. I pushed on.
I reached the top of the hill. There was no view — just the sight of dead tree tops. I thought that maybe if I walked to my right a bit, I might make it to the grassy side of the hill with the flawless view. I made it 20 feet. There was a concrete barricade separating the sides of the hill. Fuck. I began my descent.
There were two ways to get down: a winding trail that eliminated the problem of steepness and a route that went straight to the bottom. I was stubborn. I wanted immediate results. I took the faster route. Three steps in and I was on my ass, tumbling down the hill at full speed. I grabbed for the bushes and the trees limbs but everything slipped out of my hand except for some human shit. Yes, there was human feces on my hand.
This, my friends, is not only a true story, but also an appropriate anecdote to describe my addict self: stubborn, careless, impatient, impulsive, and shitty.
Europe was good and it was horrible, or it was good because it was horrible. Like an athlete on the last leg of a triathlon, my body was giving out by the end. I couldn’t make it a night without drinking. I wasn’t drinking to the point of blackouts, but I was drinking to the point of fucking strangers in the street, putting unknown drugs in my system without question, insulting new friends, letting a French dude who threatened to rape me fuck me on my knees and finger me midday in a park. I was at the point of laughing as an Italian groped me, laughing when he forced my hand onto his cock, laughing when I learned another Italian had drugged me, laughing when he followed me on the bus, laughing when I realized I was locked out of my hostel, laughing when I passed out on a stranger’s bed that night, shoes still on.
On September 23rd, the day after I fell down the hill and spent the night snorting lines of coke of a bar mirror, I flew home.
I want to share a bit of my year’s trajectory, specifically in relation to my sobriety, so here’s…
September 23, 2015: Fly from Prague to Chicago to move in with my parents. My mother picks me up from O’Hare. I sob in her arms. Spend the next two days recovering in bed. I look like this:
September 26 (?): Attend my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in almost a year. Meet Gabby, a Daria-like 19-year-old and the only friend I keep from the program. Gabby is the main reason I go to meetings at all.
Early October: Start going to my local Unitarian church in search of “God.” Get a sponsor. Sponsor says, no, I shouldn’t hang out with Patrick if there’s a chance we’ll fuck. Says I should spend a year abstinent. I decide it’s time to commit to that and end up writing this.
Mid October: Fire my sponsor after she yells at me for doodling during a meeting. Find a new sponsor at a women’s meeting. Start going to a nooners AA meeting near my house, three to five days per week.
My Unitarian minister suggests that not everything happens for a reason, which directly contradicts what I’ve learned in 12-Step meetings. She shakes the brittle foundation my 12-Step recovery stands on. I try my hardest to put “God” back in place. I walk through the woods repeating St. Michael’s Prayer.
Late October: Elected as chair of nooners meeting. During a small group, I share about sexual harassment I’ve faced at said meeting. A member pulls me aside afterwards to tell me not to talk about sexual harassment in front of men. He says it makes him uncomfortable and I should only discuss it with women.
Late November: My rape anniversary is a few days after Thanksgiving. On my way to Thanksgiving dinner, I call my sponsor and share this information. She tells me I need to forgive my rapist. I’m furious.
On my way home from Thanksgiving, I realize that I never have and never will believe in the power of prayer to change my circumstances. I reject the idea of God outright. My disdain for AA grows to the point that I give up my chair position and sever ties completely.
It’s been 1o months since I left the program. I’m still sober. I’m writing this because I want you to know that there are alternatives to 12-Step programs beyond “jails, institution, and death.” I want you to know that there’s still hope for those who can’t make Alcoholics Anonymous work for them. You’re not fucked up for “failing” out of the program. The program is fucked up for touting itself as the only way to achieve recovery.
Normally, I would say here, “If AA works for you, do your thing. I’m not trying to talk shit on the program.” I stand by that first statement. The second, not so much. I am totally talking shit on the program. I despise it. I think it’s condemning, shame-based, Catholic bullshit. Unfortunately, it’s the only mode of recovery that most people have access to, so I don’t for a second blame anyone who works it.
Sobriety was hard and then it was easy and now it’s hard again. Anniversaries always stir things up. When I celebrated my first year sober in 2014, I stood up to collect my clean time in front of 80-some people and burst into tears while giving my speech. They weren’t happy tears. They were miserable tears. Bad memories overtook the awareness of my accomplishments and left me paralyzed.
This time around, as my sober date approached, new cravings arose. I was offered a Vicodin for my migraine a few weeks ago and almost said yes. I’ve thought more casually about drinking. It’s easy to forget about consequences when you’re blinded by thoughts of bliss. It’s selective amnesia.
So what’s the deal? Why haven’t I started drinking again?
I’m about to tell you, dingus!
An Extremely Unofficial Guide to My (Anti-)Program:
1. Remember that you’re always susceptible to relapse.
Dialectical behavioral therapy talks about clean vs. addict vs. clear mind. Addict mind is , well, thinking like an addict. Clean mind is telling yourself that you’re immune to relapse — that you’re cured, basically, and can stay sober without effort. Clear mind is knowing that you’re always susceptible to relapse, but doing your best to stay clean regardless. The dialectical approach to abstinence says that the goal is to stay sober, but it’s okay if you slip, so long as you get back to recovery as quickly as you’re able. Knowing that you won’t be punished or ostracized for slipping is what expedites the process of getting back on the wagon.
One of the main problems I’ve seen with 12-Step programs is the informal hierarchy around clean/sober time — basically, members with the most clean/sober time become unauthorized gurus, even if, say, they’re sexual predators, racists, or transphobes. (I heard an old timer say that when he sees “trannies” he “sprints in the other direction.”)
If you do relapse, you basically start back at the beginning. Some people see it as an opportunity to patronize. Most will treat you like a newcomer or recovery baby. It’s as though you never stepped foot in a meeting before. A lot of people won’t return to meetings because of interpersonal consequences. Some of them fight the shame by using more than they normally would. Some of those people die.
I try to live with the knowledge that I might use again some day. It’s possible that, with age, I’ll figure out how to drink or smoke and be okay. It’s also possible that I’ll fall flat on my ass and tumble full-speed down a dirt hill again, in which case sobriety is always a decision away.
Remember: thoughts are just thoughts. The more we pretend they don’t exist, the bigger and realer they get. To eliminate the thoughts, you have to acknowledge them: “I am thinking about drinking, but that doesn’t mean I have to act on it.”
2. Consider past and potential consequences.
This, ultimately, is key to my sobriety. Being a memoirist means my job is essentially to write an endless fourth step (“Make a searching and fearless moral inventory…”). I am constantly reopening my case file, mulling over the facts of my past usage in excruciating, humiliating, disgusting detail. (Doesn’t memoir writing sound fun?)
My track record is really bad. I often wish more than anything that I could say otherwise, but if you’ve read my blog, you know I’m bad with self-deception.
Here are some of the consequences I’ve faced from drinking and drug use:
- Multiple car accidents
- Lost friends
- Public humiliation
- Family interventions
- Threats of disownment
- Daily existential crises
- Near-death experiences
So why, then, would I continue using?
Because, my love, the drugs always work in theory.
3. List the physical side effects
I take two medications: Celexa (an SSRI) and Lamictal (a mood stabilizer). Mix an antidepressant with booze and you’re going to have a bad time. Mix an antidepressant with A LOT of booze, and you’re going to wake up every day wishing you had a gun to put to your head. (Or was that just me?)
How many days did I waste sick and in bed, counting last night’s mistakes like sheep over the fence? Stomach aches, migraines, body shakes, weight gain, bloating, insomnia, exhaustion … gross.
PTSD is a daily bodily rollercoaster in itself — it takes a lot of effort to keep a traumatized system in check. Sobriety, at least, allows for some consistency.
4. Embrace the benefits of sobriety
Being sober, for me, means fostering meaningful friendships based on shared values rather than shared drug choices. It means going to skating rinks and movie theaters and arcades and old people bingo nights instead of the bar. It means waking up clear-headed and energized. It means safety. It means enjoying time alone and in nature. It means finding pleasure in things like sex and ice cream. It means reading out loud instead of searching for my next fix. It means finding less detrimental chaos and excitement. It means productivity. It means more writing, reading, talking, laughing, fucking, dancing, smiling, and playing. It means learning how to be a kid again and loving the shit out of it.
Being sober, for me, is synonymous with honesty. And fucking damn, I’ve gotten honest.
There is no God in my anti-program. There’s no shaming, no rules, no Catholic undertones. It’s not a confessional system — it’s not a system at all, really. It’s a matter of being real with yourself, running the tape through, and remembering the consequences.
I have a number of friends who have stayed sober without a program. I called one of them as I was deciding to leave AA and asked her how she had stayed sober for so long. She said it comes down to always remembering her bottom. And so, time and again, I return to that bar in Prague with the bald lawyer and the drugged out expatriate and I remember waking up in so much pain that I had to swallow my pride, publicly admit to my drinking problem, and fly back to the states.
I set out on my European adventure with no plans to come home. For all I knew, I was gone for good. I made it two months. I could say that I failed or I could acknowledge that I found the answer I was looking for: I needed to get sober.
And so here I am. It’s been a rocky year, but still somehow one of the best so far. I applied and was accepted to grad school, which I started in June. I made a solo trip to New York with my dog and peed in a first cup for the first time. I stayed sexually abstinent for four months. I was published. I was published again. I accidentally went viral. I brushed off attacks from men’s rights activists. I made three zines and recorded an album. Most importantly, I got real as fuck with myself and with, well, pretty much anyone who reads this shit.
Revel in your accomplishments, ninis. I need to remember to do this, too. It’s all too easy to be subsumed by self-hatred. The real challenge is being cool with your bad self.
I feel like I want to apologize here for talking so much about myself, but this is my blog and my words are my way of reaching people, so I’m gonna keep the apologies to myself, ding dongs. And on that note, I want to shout out to a few people who have reached, inspired, and encouraged me over the past year. (If this is too Academy Awards for you, just jump to the poem at the end. It’s a good one, I swear.)
Massive amounts of love to Corazon, Elsa, Nora, Jessica, and Gabby, my very best friends
Thank you, Simon, Angelina, Dan, Sarah, Ryan, and everyone else from church for.
Thanks to my writing mentors, both legit and inadvertent: Christine, Bettina, Melissa, and Ming.
Thank you to Colleen, my forever sister.
Thank you, Gio, Sarah, Momo, and Petter for being my life coaches in Europe.
Thank you, Mike Berte, for taking your life back.
Thank you, Zach and Luke, for showing me how deeply I can love. Meant it when I said I’d take a bullet for you both.
Thank you, Grace and Meghan, for being my biggest Big Mouth fans.
Thank you, Jesse and Mark, for your support through the xoJane debacle.
Thank you, Patrick L., for your encouragement on my first day sober.
Thank you, Little Moon, for existing. I love you.
Thank you, fellow wild grrlz — Lindsay, Ryzoma, and all the rest of ya.
Thank you, Bryna, for sending me the Rilke poem in my moment of crisis. I’ll never forget you or it.
And I think I’ll finish with that very poem. Love you all. Thanks for, you know, everything.