Photo by Tim Walker, British Vogue, May 2011. Model: Agyness Deyn

Lessons from a Swimmer Who Did in 2015

Perhaps you woke up hungover New Year’s Day. I did not, which represents a 180-degree shift from the first day of the years between 1986-2015 and pretty much every day betwixt. On January 1, 2017, I had the great pleasure of opening up my eyes to the crystal clear realization that I had an entire calendar year of sobriety under my belt.

For years and years beforehand, I often wondered where — and whom — I’d be if I gave up alcohol. When I couldn’t land on an acceptable answer or location, I instensifed the search for the perfectly tipsy me in the perfect overseas drinking hole. Pombe in Kenya. Soju in South Korea. Old Peculiar in Merry Old England. I’d never run out of booze if I kept running to and fro. There was always a party, somewhere, waiting for me. I just had to find it.

But after three decades of hangovers and layovers, I found myself smack dab in the middle of the Middle East — sick and tired of (and from) my party-girl persona. Something about the landscape, and the people, told me that sand and sobriety were a more promising mix than rye and water.

I went to cold turkey in blistering hot Abu Dhabi on March 28, 2015. The days immediately following are a blur of angst and agony — but ultimately worth every second of strung-out soul searching.

Prior to meeting the Bedouins, I felt destined for a liquid life. In my youth, I could outswim most other American women. As an adult, I discovered I could outdrink most other people, women or men from any country. Just different sides of the same coin, I figured. Either way, I felt like a champ. Instead of hoisting trophies over my head, I lifted bottles.

But mid-way through my 49th year — lodged between the Arabian Gulf and the Arabian Desert — I decided to take a long hard look at my slippery slope. Gone was the lean sprinter who’d qualified for the Olympic Trials in 1988. Gone was the quick thinker who’d gotten into college at the tender age of 16. I was a menopausal woman, growing in girth and mirth, with a serious drinking problem. Being an alcoholic had been so consuming that I was almost completely gone.

Was it possible that, over the course of three decades, I’d drowned my sorrows with enough alcohol to fill several swimming pools? By my calculations, the answer was yes.

I decided, on the spot, to dry out.

Turns out that a Muslim country is a darn good place to get sober. I didn’t have to contend with booze at every turn in every grocery store, at every table in every restaurant, or on every television and billboard. The location, however, didn’t mean any less suffering was involved in the detox process. For days, I cried myself to sleep and vomited upon awaking. But the muezzin’s call to prayer, five times a day, tethered me to Earth and a to power far greater than my addiction.

Upon moving back to the United States three months later, I was shocked by the world I’d once inhabited (and imbibed in) so well. There are never-ending excuses to drink here, not just New Year’s Eve. Heck, 5 p.m. every day is reason enough — and certainly was for me. Fortunately, I’ve found ways to circumnavigate boozy situations, just as I’d once found ways to eschew teetotalers. These days, I stare at a fixed point on the horizon and hold that focus until the threat is behind me— the way I did on the starting blocks before a big swimming race.

I do marvel at the phenomenon of drinkers inviting non-drinkers to their drinking parties. Of course I did this, too, in my drinking days because it’s par for the course. And this is NOT a condemnation of my circle of dearest friends who have been exceptionally supportive and creative in their camaraderie — far more than I ever was to friends who gave up drinking long before I did. Yet it occurs to me that no one would ever consider inviting someone recovering from opioid dependence over to watch them pop a Percocet for pain. I know it’s not a fair analogy, but I can’t help testing the idea. I don’t shy away from difficult questions these days — a vast improvement over drinking scary thoughts away.

What I loved about starting my recovery in Abu Dhabi was the fact that people who drank had to do it behind closed doors and the non-drinkers were front and center. In the United States, those in recovery tend to congregate in church basements while folks above ground drink like there’s no tomorrow. My social media feed here is rife with memes like “Mommy Needs Vodka.”

Recovering alcoholics have to stay afloat in some very rough waters, even if they go dry in the desert. Fortunately, I’m still an excellent swimmer. And I’ve been able to hit the pool on two consecutive New Year’s Days to celebrate just how far I’ve come.

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