I was walking from Babeland back to my car when I spotted the otter I thought might get me sober. He was in the window of the craft shop next door, waiting to be made from bits of brown and orange wool and a barbed needle. Felting, it was called. It had never occurred to me that felt was something people made; I assumed it just sprang from Zeus’s forehead in pre-cut rectangles, ready to rock. But apparently just this once, my understanding was incomplete and imperfect.
I stared at the otter contemplating all the things I could learn about the world if I ever got my head right, and then I went inside.
Back then I had a hopeful, shamed relationship to crafting stores. (Well, I still do.) I saw them as temples to utility and skill and the concept of having, like, an interest in something, and the women in them as role models. Every few months I would drop a lot of cash on yarn for scarves I planned to donate to homeless shelters, or embroidery thread for tooth fairy pillowcases I would give to children’s hospitals, where I guess I thought children were losing teeth en masse. My crafting plans were always large-scale and philanthropic, partly to compensate the world for putting up with me, but also because I needed a project. Some beginning knitters might have thought one scarf was a project. But then, their goal was probably to make a scarf. My goal was to no longer want to drink an entire bottle of wine every night, and that would take more yarn.
So I would get myself all set up and spend up to 20 minutes in earnest learning mode before realizing it hadn’t worked. I was not in fact wholly absorbed, and my nerves had not been calmed the way all those post-9/11 Brooklynite knitters had claimed theirs were, and I still wanted to have the glass of Chardonnay that would become four. The yarn and needles and instruction books would sit on the coffee table for a few weeks and then end up in the linen closet next to the guest-bed sheets and the beach towels — the shelf for variations of myself that showed themselves rarely, if ever.
And yet, I had not yet tried an otter. And when I was eight or nine, my mother had spent one Christmas season absorbed in sewing felt ornaments from patterns in McCall’s: camels and elephants and mice, stuffed with cotton and finished with iridescent thread. Her absorption made our house feel like a safe place to live for several weeks, free of the slaps and tantrums and dark threats that she always blamed me for causing. Decades later, when I thought of the kind of Christmas happiness I never seemed able to conjure up for myself, a small sequin-eyed camel would come to mind. So maybe the otter could be my talisman, and turbo-charged if he came from my own hands.
I browsed the store the way I once would have approached a man: in a slow spiral, staying off radar until I knew for sure I wanted him to see me. Finally I slinked up to the rack where my otter’s components waited in a box. I read the package carefully to be sure I wasn’t getting in over my head; fortunately, the target crafter base of ‘people between the age of 7 and 107’ described me to a tee. I grabbed the kit and a felting block and needle and hit the register. “For my niece,” I told the clerk brightly, though she had not asked.
Last month I was storing a duvet cover in the linen closet and came across my otter, or at least his potential. I was still in the right age range to make him and I thought, well, maybe I will. But it turned out I’d bought the wrong size felting block that day four years ago. I could go buy another one, but would I? I couldn’t quite picture it.
I took the kit downstairs and showed my husband. “I found the otter of sobriety,” I said.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “I remember this guy. Are you ever going to make him?”
“It’s hard to say,” I said. “Just looking at him makes me feel kind of exhausted. Though not as exhausted as he probably feels looking at me.”
“I asked a lot of this otter.”
What happened that night in 2010 to make my otter plan fall through? I don’t remember exactly, but I know it was either something good, or something bad, or something neutral. Maybe we cooked dinner, or maybe we went out. Maybe there was something on Netflix. Maybe I read a few pages of a book, maybe I started to worry about the future and the past all at once, maybe I did some laundry. But something happened to make me want to drink a bottle of wine. And wanting to meant I had to. And so I did.
It’s not that crafting was my only exit strategy. Oh, no. Once I enrolled in a detox program where coolers of everything-free food were dropped on my doorstep twice a day. The idea was to consume no allergens, no gluten, no dairy, no sugar, no caffeine, and no alcohol for two weeks, take ‘long reflective walks’ (which I did not do), meditate every day (did not do), and keep a journal (nope). I was stupefied by foodlessness and caffeine withdrawal into feeling pretty good, or at least pleasantly free of volition. On day five I thought maybe this is the end of me wanting to drink, which was the only reason I’d signed on in the first place — to have myself swept into sobriety on a wave of a bunch of other stuff I didn’t care about.
Then on the morning of day six, I was standing on the back deck with my herbal tea and watched our golden retriever Abby fall over sideways in the backyard — stiff-legged, like someone had cow-tipped a Steiff animal. It would have been funny if it hadn’t been a real thing that was actually happening. For a moment I just stood there, unsure what to make of it. She was eleven, but an active senior, who still drove and had recently caucused for Hillary Clinton in the presidential primary — she wasn’t supposed to just topple. Finally I snapped to and ran to her side, yelling for my husband.
She couldn’t get up, so I lay down in the yard and curled my body around hers while my husband called the vet. She was calm and I was too, especially the two times it seemed her heart was taking a really long break. “It’s okay if you have to go,” I said to her. “You can go if you need to, baby.” It didn’t seem fair to beg her not to die, or for her to die thinking it was all about me. And she did die, though not then, not in my arms. She died later that day on a table at the vet’s office, waiting for an ultrasound exam that would have revealed what the autopsy showed to be a large, asymptomatic tumor on her heart. I wasn’t there.
We got the call and drove, somehow, to the vet’s office. I was thirty-eight and hers was the first dead body I’d ever seen. She was lying on a gurney under a pink blanket, cozy and tucked in. “Oh, she looks so beautiful,” I whispered. I leaned down and kissed her muzzle and her eyes and told her she was the prettiest and best girl in the whole wide world and at the last minute I unbuckled her pink leather collar and took it home so it wouldn’t be cremated with her. I sort of wish I hadn’t, because seeing it in my purse a few hours later was one of the worst moments of my life.
But anyway! That was day six of the detox program and I wanted to drink a bottle of wine that night, so I did. But, you know, this is not about tragedy driving my fragile-flower self back to the bottle. If she’d made it through the night I would have gotten drunk out of worry over what the next day would bring. If she’d somehow turned out to be just fine, I would have wanted to drink to smooth over the flow and ebb of adrenalin in my body. Yes, my dog died and it was sudden and shocking and horrible. But most days my dog didn’t die.
A while later I took an eight-week meditation class with a renowned psychotherapist who specialized in mindfulness as a hedge against depression relapse. She was sixty-something and tiny and New York-accented, all of which enhanced her legitimacy in my eyes as someone who could actually help me. At the pre-course interview, she asked what I was hoping to get from the experience. “Just, you know, a greater sense of calm and centeredness?” I asked her. “And maybe the ability to kind of hold still?”
She nodded and asked if I currently had any kind of meditation practice. No, I told her, other than the last five minutes of yoga. That could count, she said. But not if I spent most of it thinking about what to have for dinner, I countered. She laughed. “Okay,” she said. “You may not stop having those thoughts, but you can learn not to follow them.”
Oh! There was one other thing, I said. “Sometimes I worry that I’m too dependent on my two glasses of wine a night. Like, it’s just two, but I have to have them. Do you think meditation can help with that?” I was lying about the volume by 50%, but it was also the first time in a decade of worry that I had ever told anyone I was worried at all.
“Yes,” she said. “It can help.” She explained a concept called urge surfing, where you basically rode it out. As a child growing up in Florida, I’d spent my fair share of time trapped under a wave I’d meant to ride; the moment she said the words I could feel the downward pressure of the water, the sand swirling around my face. “Meditation is helpful, though not always sufficient,” she went on. But I knew, I just knew that for me, it would be sufficient and I would not want to drink anymore. I felt it every Wednesday evening as I lay with seven other people on the floor of her office, scanning my body and silently repeating a mantra and meditating on the sounds around me — the lapping of Lake Union and the traffic on the Fremont Bridge. It was wonderful, those two hours a week of feeling sober and whole and safe. It did not change my behavior in the slightest, but I thought someday it might, someday when something happened to make me want to try.
I bought and started giant books that were supposed to enrapture me into sobriety, books so thick they practically had to be printed on onion skin. (I can report that the first twenty pages of A Suitable Boy are delightful enough to read five times.) I rejoiced when I felt a cold or flu coming on because I knew it would make me stop wanting to drink, though really it just made me want to drink a bit less. I signed up for early-morning exercise classes because I didn’t think I’d show up to them hung over, but of course I did. I went on diets and wrote down everything I ate and drank to make myself more conscious of my consumption, because I thought that if I had to really face facts I would lose my desire to drink. Not long ago, I found one of those food lists in an old Moleskine:
- Steel cut oatmeal
- 10 walnuts
- Kale salad
- 1/2 chicken breast
- 1 apple
- Tuna sashimi
- Arugula w/lemon juice
- 6 glasses Chardonnay
I didn’t understand why I wasn’t losing weight.
I asked my doctor to check my thyroid. My thyroid was fine. Blood pressure, cholesterol, liver function — fine. I had been lying for so long that my body started lying, too. “You’re healthy as a horse, my dear,” she said.
Can we back up for a second? I was happy when I got sick because I thought it would kill my desire to drink.
Other ways I didn’t stop: Smaller glasses. Switching to red. Switching to liquor. Going to therapy and talking only about other things. Yoga. Running to exhaustion. Working to exhaustion. Nature. Vacations in places so peaceful they didn’t have cell signal. Puppies, rainbows, love, sex, occasional glimpses of God in a crowd.
I did mention it to a therapist once, actually. We got there via work stress which was linked to my propensity to take on crushingly big jobs which was linked to my bag-lady fears which were linked to my impostor syndrome which was linked to my suspicion that I was not very smart, good, or kind, which was linked to my toddlerhood and maybe infancy, I’m not sure, I don’t remember much before age two and am afraid to. “I’m slightly concerned about alcohol,” I said to this therapist vis-a-vis my work stress. “I’m in a rut where I need two or three glasses of wine every night just to calm down from the day.” My therapist wanted to know how long that had been going on. A while, I said, but I felt like it was getting worse.
I worked for a company that had a reputation for hiring only the most brilliant, hard-working people and then sort of totaling a fair number of them. Everyone in Seattle knew someone who had gotten divorced or gained forty pounds in a year or had a breakdown or a cold that turned into hospital-grade pneumonia or just turned hollow and brittle and paranoid. So it was easy for even good therapists to make false assumptions where my employer was concerned, especially when their patients were spectacular liars like me.
My therapist frowned. “That’s a lot night after night,” she said. “You probably could go on for the rest of your life like that, but I don’t think you want to.”
I shook my head. “I definitely don’t want it to become a pattern,” I said. But inside I was Ginger the dog from that Far Side cartoon, hearing only you could go on for the rest of your life like that. Oh, how I loved her for telling me nothing had to change, that I could go on with my two glasses a night forever. I drank my bottle with a light heart that night.
I saw a psychic who smudged me with sage and told me things about myself that made my neck prickle. She didn’t mention it. I saw a hypnotherapist who titled me back in one of those puffy recliners I really, really disapprove of aesthetically and put me in a trance and told me I wanted to be a moderate drinker. I took B vitamins and D vitamins and all the others too. And nothing made me stop. Because I wasn’t looking to stop drinking; I was looking to stop wanting to drink. Because then the stopping itself would be as easy as avoiding spin class or olives or anything else I didn’t like.
I felt such shame for wanting it to be easy. But — duh — of course I did. Who wouldn’t? Is it so much better, more moral, to make your life harder than it has to be?
I would have said no, but I think I thought yes.
In the end, the way I stopped was by actually stopping. It was free and required no experts from this world or the other. I woke up one Saturday in June with a headache. My husband was out of town, so I lay alone in our king-sized bed in the miserable sunlight contemplating a whole day having to move my head around on my body and something in me said: okay.
Just like that. Okay, I get it. I understand.
Why that day, why that headache? I can’t say. Though I do recall two nights that spring, one in London and one in New York, when I came back to my hotel room from standard-level-boozy but otherwise unexceptional business dinners and cried for hours — hours — in a way that terrified me because I didn’t know why it was happening. Sure, I was to varying degrees drunk, lonely, and dislocated, but hey, what else was new? What chilled me most was that it felt like why not crying. Why not stare down at the Thames and sob until the skin over your cheekbones is red with salt burns? Why not watch CNN until 4 a.m. because you’re too scared to go to sleep because you’re too scared to wake up? It seemed like my natural, animal state — a new default setting, and also the one true part of my day. Looking back, I think it was a logical reaction to the fact that I was almost out of options for living with myself and did not believe I could beg, borrow, steal, buy, or felt any new ones, ever. But in the moment? Just fear, a whole new fear for the charm bracelet I’d thought was full.
The morning I said okay, fine was a few weeks after the night I’d spent crying in Hell’s Kitchen with the CNN graveyard crew. Were those moments connected? I don’t know. All I can say is that lying there, I understood that what I wanted no longer mattered and that I would have to wait and hope that maybe someday I would want something else, something I could actually have.
I got out of bed and took Advil and went to Pilates and then met my best friend for lunch. The six most common words to leave my best friend’s mouth are “Did you see the Oprah where…,” which is why I had pounced on a local artist’s lithograph, white-on-white, that said I Want Oprah’s God. I gave it to her that day and she laughed with delight. “I think we all want Oprah’s god,” she said.
She wasn’t a drinking friend per se, but that didn’t mean we hadn’t done plenty of drinking together. In her all-white divorce condo or at my kitchen counter, where she liked to hang out for however long and watch me cook. At bars with their own rooftop herb gardens and bars that sold lottery tickets and bars with house-made falernum and one bar in desolate central Washington where we got the “Y’all sisters?” routine. Or standing in front of my floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, glasses nestled in the gaps.
She had most of the dirt on me and she knew I wanted to cut back. But that day, when she asked about my plans for the evening, all I said was “Relax and enjoy the quiet, I guess.”
“Isn’t it amazing when husbands go out of town?” she said, and I agreed that it was pretty great.
It was, in fact, lucky that my husband was out of town that day because he is an attentive, encouraging guy and I knew that if he noticed something different and acknowledged it in any way, I wouldn’t make it. I had read about the ‘pain cave’ that distance runners go into, and I had also seen Trainspotting and Drugstore Cowboy and Jesus’s Son and all the other heroin movies (of which there are a lot, aren’t there?). I didn’t expect to face any kind of physical horrors; it was never that kind of habit. But what awaited otherwise, I didn’t know. Many nights I had tried to wait twenty minutes between wanting a glass of wine and having one, and almost always I had failed. So that’s where I was starting from: the knowledge that I was a forty-something, high-gloss, overachieving, loved, moneyed woman who did not have the strength to wait one-third of a goddamn hour between thinking of a specific liquid and pouring it down her gullet. And all the therapy and hypnosis and diets and Reiki — did I mention the Reiki, the thousand dollars of it? — the world had to offer hadn’t helped me.
But the difference was that then I’d been trying to kill the want. And now I didn’t give a fuck about the want. Now I only cared about killing the yes.
Still, I thought it might get ugly and was glad I’d be alone to gut it out. I kept myself busy with errands all afternoon and when I finally did return to my empty house, I was girded with magazines and chocolate and ideas for movies to watch and everything else you bring your friend when she breaks up with her boyfriend, come to think of it. And I hunkered down and waited to fall apart.
Nine o’clock was when I’d normally decide to have a glass of wine. I was loading the dishwasher when I noticed the time and then, on cue, the wanting. My heart beat harder in a creepy, sloshy way. I put down the plate I was holding and leaned against the butcher block and then slid down to my haunches, because why not? If I could, I would have liquefied the flagstone tiles, buried my feet in the muck and remade them around me to hold myself to the earth. Think of all the times you haven’t had something you’ve wanted, I told myself. Houses, jobs. A Jean-Paul Gaultier clutch with brass knuckles for a handle, which I remembered in more detail than any of the houses and jobs. The love of entire human beings, who I remembered in more detail than the clutch. I’d missed out on all these things and lived. I could lose this and live too.
I stayed low for another minute, feeling sorry for myself over the Gaultier and the houses and the people who’d failed to love me even though I was clearly pretty awesome, all crouched down on my kitchen floor like a lunatic because I couldn’t have my yellow liquid. The self-pity soothed me down enough to eventually rise back to counter level and finish loading the dishwasher. And by then it was all of 9:15.
How did I spend the rest of the night? I can tell you exactly what I did: I walked around my house looking at stuff. I went up to the third floor and looked out the window where we could see the Space Needle in winter, when the trees were bare. Now it was June and the leaves were on the trees, so I looked at the leaves instead. I pulled Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle book off the shelf and flipped through it for a minute, until it started to creep me out.
I went down to the second floor we had a collection of small Czech pots and vases that my in-laws who dealt in art glass had given us over the years. I picked them up one by one and examined the signatures and dates etched on their bottoms. Sixty years ago, people in gray post-war Czechoslovakia had made these beautiful, nominally functional little vessels by hand. They must have been brave, focused, sober people, I decided. Unlike me, they must have had purpose and stout hearts and belief that the future was something worth paying into. Unlike me, they worked hard and ate sensible foods and slept heavy as sandbags at night.
I stood in the hallway comparing myself to the great saints of mid-century Czechoslovakia for a while and then I went into the bathroom and practiced doing a smoky eye.
And that’s how the evening passed, the first of my sobriety — with wandering and wanting and saying no. I had expected to be wide awake all night, but by midnight I was exhausted. I slid into bed and lay on my side thinking about the night. It had been manageable, I realized. Manageable was kind of beyond my wildest dreams. Managing was something I could probably do two nights in a row. As for how people managed not to drink for millions of nights in a row — thinking about it made my heart flop around, but I assumed it was a matter of skills and practice. I had once not known how to manage a business, or a difficult meeting, or a home renovation, and now I did. Maybe I could learn to subvert my own wants the same way, with processes and contingency plans and only the occasional night in an abyss.
On the nightstand was a matte blue Czech dish for my lip balm and earrings. I reached over and touched its lid now. I can be like you guys, I thought. Stolid and quasi-Soviet. Not once did it occur to me that my wants could be transformed into new ones — that once I said “okay, fine” they would start morphing almost of their own accord, and within days. I had no idea. How could I? Faith was nothing but what I told other people I had in them when I wanted to say something helpful.
But toughness and will I understood. Grow up with a few stuffed felt camels and mice between you and a mother’s fury, and you will be tough, even if it sometimes looks to others like fear. I knew I could be tough for a very long time. I settled into the hammock of tensile resilience that had kept me going for decades — that had even kept me nosing up to sobriety again and again, in my hapless way — and fell asleep inside it.
I slept for ten hours — warmly, dreamlessly — and woke in a greenish rainy light. Outside the trees were fretting in the wind. I lay still in the middle of the bed, feeling suspended in my own body as though my self and my skin were giving each other a bit of room. You have a whole day, I thought. You have a whole honest day ahead and you can do anything you want.