Postcards from across the globe. [Photo by Sundeep Basi]

Not the Yeast Bit Interested

Lessons from five years of sobriety: It may not help, but it’s all I got.

I’ve been struggling to write this first sentence; in fact, I’ve written and erased it thirty-four times now. Is this the byproduct of my OCD tendencies making a triumphant return? No, the reason is that I know, first hand, that no matter how compelling of an intro I write, my target audience won’t be swayed one way or another by another personal essay on why someone quit drinking. No, these reflective moments are often aimed at those individuals but it impacts everyone else… folks with loved ones who are alcoholics, people who have gotten themselves clean, the curious reader, but it often misses the target audience.

So instead of beating a dead horse, let’s just say a quick prayer for those alcoholics who are still continuing their journey. I’m going to make up something on the spot. It’s not that good, but here it goes:

The Alcoholic’s Prayer

To all of those who continue to abuse alcohol, may you reach your rock bottom in a manner that does not result in severe bodily harm to yourself or others… and if the time comes when you want to change your life, may you have the strength to swim back up to find your happiness.

OK, now if I do have one or two alcoholics still reading at this point, I’m going to try to make this reading more bearable for you by telling you a story you don’t know. If the numerous horror stories about drinking that are scattered across the internet haven’t scared you sober, I’m not going to waste your time by harping on that aspect. Nothing I have felt or experienced is anything new. I drank for reasons similar to all of you. I’ve drunk because of heartbreak, because of loss, to quiet the voices in my head, to deal with unspeakable things, as well as a litany of other reasons that seemed important at the time. I’ve dry heaved, hurled, and passed out in questionable places, said regrettable things to people I like and dislike, embarrassed myself beyond belief, blown numerous opportunities, neglected my health, and very regrettably, almost killed myself.

It sounds callous to say, but it’s all trite. If it’s going to do nothing to help you, then I’m not going to bring it up and upset myself. No, that would be a waste of time for both of us.

But let me tell you a different story. A story I know you don’t know yet.

Let me tell you what might happen when you stop. I’m not saying it will happen, but you’ll never know unless you try to swim up to the surface.

In your first year of sobriety, you might feel extremely lonely. That contact list on your phone, the one that seemed to never end, is getting shorter and shorter by the week. Just because you stopped drinking and can’t be around alcohol, doesn’t mean others are willing to make that sacrifice too, even if they have known you for a lifetime.

They’ll tell you to meet them at that bar you used to love. The one where the bartenders always over pour. “You don’t have to drink, just hang out with us! We miss you,” they’ll persuasively say, and things will seem great until you get back from using the bathroom and you see six shot glasses on the table. There are six of you… the numbers don’t add up. It plays out exactly how it does in your head. Five minutes later you’re headed home. You’re so angry that you’re visibly shaking. It seems they don’t take your attempt at sobriety seriously. No, some even rolled their eyes as you left the bar, but you can’t blame them. You’ve made this empty proclamation more times than you can remember. Why should this time be any different?

Even when you’re six months in, many friends will just see it as a phase. A detox of some sort until you’re ready to be the life of the party again. You’ll cut these people out of your life because they will do things like buy you six packs for your birthday, gift you with a flask and scotch set for being one of their groomsmen, or repeatedly remind you how you’re not fun when you’re sober. You’ll even start to believe them. Self-doubt kicks in and you wonder “Maybe I’m not fun without alcohol?” Or even worse, “Maybe I wasn’t really an alcoholic in the first place?”.

You begin wondering if perhaps you can drink every once in a while. The thought scares you. You’ve done this numerous times before and failed miserably. Every time you drink, you binge. It’s like watching yourself on autopilot. No matter how hard you try, once you are drunk, you will continue to drink until there isn’t a drop around or you’re face down, blacked out in a pile of your own vomit. The last thing you want to do is risk a relapse. You decide to stop going to bars to meet them; you just can’t take that risk, not right now. You’re not strong enough yet.

Some people might be so hard of hearing that even though you don’t pick up their phone calls, they will show up at your parents’ house to surprise you after work in an attempt to support your sobriety by doing what they know best… get completely wasted. To make matters worse, they’ll drive home drunk after you have an argument with them because you tell them that there is nothing wrong with gay marriage, something you are pretty sure they support in the first place, but they are so wasted that they don’t realize what they are saying. Or maybe they do know what they are saying and they are finally telling you how they really feel. Perhaps some of your friends aren’t as open-minded as you once thought. It appears not drinking is costing you a lot.

But it’s not all bad. Your skin is beginning to look good again and it is nice having money in your pocket at the end of the week. Plus, you do have a few Gibraltar-esque friends who support your decision so much that they will bring you six packs of specialty root beer when they see you or stay up all night playing video games with you as you skip the bars to play Halo. They will invite you out to dinner and order ice tea that didn’t come from Long Island. You’ll tell them they don’t have to cut out alcohol, but they tell you they don’t mind. They prefer the sober you anyway… the fun you. The one that doesn’t text them at 4 AM in the morning writing weird and incoherent statements that make them worry. You thank them for their support, but deep down inside you sort of miss the excitement that came with drinking, in a weird perverse sort of way. However, you decide to stick out.

Yes, it might not be the most exciting life, but at least you’re not chronically sick anymore or stressing out anyone. No more two-day hangovers where you can’t get out of bed and you’re afraid to fall asleep because your breathing feels labored. No more puking on yourself in your sleep and definitely no more showing up at 7 AM in the morning to greet your family at the breakfast table covered in a bloody white t-shirt because you slipped cutting a lime with your pocket knife and were too busy dancing at a party with a woman you liked a lot to get your hand properly stitched up. A woman who wouldn’t end up seeing you again because when the lights turned on she had your blood all over her shorts and everyone thought she had her period. In fact, she was teased relentlessly because of it. You could have easily explained the situation, but you bailed an hour ago, to go to another party, leaving her both angry and embarrassed (super sorry about this one).

Don’t feel too bad, you’ll get what is coming to you. Karma tends to be a bitch. While you can numb yourself during the day, you can’t escape the nightmares of your past offenses. In fact, even after you stop drinking, they play on repeat, night after night like a bad rerun, leaving you in a cold sweat, scared to go back to bed.

In year two, you’re going to realize that anxiety is real. Those terrible flutters inside you haven’t gone away. In fact, you will probably start visiting the doctor more because now that you are making a proper attempt to live, you truly feel like you are dying half the time. Somewhere along the way you stopped saying dumb shit like “I don’t care if I die,” because you do, oh, boy do you care now.

In fact, you will continue to feel this way until every general practitioner and medical specialist comes to the same conclusion: perfectly healthy… well minus the slight heart condition, but it’s minor and they assure you it is definitely not the root of your problems. No, just a little general anxiety that you never felt because you were too busy drinking yourself numb.

Either way, it’s a small price to pay because your family is so proud of you. In fact, every time you tell them you’re 380 days sober, or 423 days sober, they look equally enthusiastic as the time before. They could never get tired of hearing that number get higher. You wear it like a badge of courage. Look out Cal Ripkin Jr., you’re about to see a real streak; one that will never end. Most of the time things seem normal, but every once in a while something minor will remind you that it wasn’t too long ago that you had a crippling problem.

Perhaps it will be the slight look of fear in your parents’ eyes when you ask to smell their wine glasses or go to your job’s holiday party, but they never say anything. No, they are terrified to disrupt whatever zen routine you are on that is allowing you to stay sans alcohol. Statistically, you won’t be able to keep this up, but they can’t give up hope. Hope is the only thing they can still cling on to.

By year three, you’re really starting to get out of your shell again. You can meet friends at a bar without feeling tempted and house parties are a breeze. Hell, you are becoming the life of the party and people are amazed that you are doing it completely sober. Random people will tell you that they admire what you do, and you will unknowingly become the leading expert on all things related to alcoholism. People will randomly ask you if they are an alcoholic. You’ll tell them you have no idea, that it’s not some simple math formula and that only they know that answer. However, you tell them that if they have to ask, it probably holds a hint of truth.

You even start dating again, but you soon realize that after years of needing caretakers, you might be attracted to others who need caretaking now. You want to save them in ways that others couldn’t save you. Ultimately you will form unhealthy codependent relationships, whether platonic or romantic in nature, where you will pour every ounce of your soul into making them happy… and you will fail because no matter what you say and do, they are on their own life’s journey and it must run its course as they deem it fit, not you. They most likely will have to hit their rock bottoms, just like you did. It’s something you do not wish on anyone.

As you slowly sail away from them, they’ll plead and beg you to stay and save them. They will call your name for help and you’ll be tempted to swim after them, but you won’t, as you already know first hand why drowning victims can be the most dangerous people in the world. You’ll cry as they slowly drown in the ocean of their despair, you might even look back, but your hands will stay firmly on the wheel. You’ll wonder if you did the right thing. You’ll always wonder that.

In year four, you feel something strange inside of you. It’s not permanent, but it flickers from time to time. You feel happy. None of your friends or family will want to hear you fucking talk about how many days you have been sober one more time. They just don’t care at all… and it’s a great feeling. In fact, you will go through tough times and not a single one of your loved ones will even be slightly worried that you will hit the bottle again. They know you’re tougher than that and won’t even insult you by entertaining the notion.

To stave off that chronic boredom and overthinking that is occurring because of all the free time you have, you will invest yourself fully in whatever you take on. You’ll strive to break six-minute miles, write every story that comes to mind, learn magic tricks, travel all over the globe… you’ll connect, genuinely and wholeheartedly with other wonderful individuals on this planet. You’ll realize that we aren’t so different after all… it’s a nice feeling. It makes you optimistic that you might fall in love one day, but you’re not in a rush. No, you’re still busy learning what it’s like to be yourself again. It feels like being reunited with a childhood friend.

You’ll start to feel happy… not all days, but most. It’s not exactly what you imagined it to be… not as manic as some of the feelings you experienced while intoxicated, but it’s nice, calm, and above all, consistent. It takes time to get used to, but you begin to prefer this over the permanent state of turbulence you resided in before. It feels good for you.

Speaking of things feeling good, while it took a long time, you will slowly start to learn how to date healthy, stable people again. You will no longer dismiss someone as “boring” just because they do not put your heart through a whacky rollercoaster ride of dopamine and oxytocin highs and while you still haven’t found the right one, you’ve made some stellar friends along the way. Friends that show you that boys and girls can be great platonic friends without hidden agendas. You’ll both teach each other valuable lessons and help each other heal old wounds. This isn’t to say you won’t slip up and make some of the old dating mistakes you made in the past, but in each mistake, you will learn a new lesson… and more importantly, you will grow as a human being.

In year five, you’ll finally say out loud what you’ve known for a little while now… you are happy. You’ve made all the amends you can make and are at peace with your life. You acknowledge that you are the sum of your past, present, and future actions. You understand that to err is human.

You will stop worrying that the moment you get comfortable, and really start to think you’ve found your happiness, that something is going to randomly come through and take it away. You stop being afraid and take the highs and lows that come with living, as a life without them isn’t really living at all. You’ll tell yourself your heart is still open to love and that you want children, but that if it doesn’t happen, that’s OK too. This unexpected journey has been just that, and you are very thankful to be sharing it with others.

As you approach six years, you forget that you ever had a drinking problem. It almost feels like a fleeting dream that you can’t recall the details of so well. The memories are no longer haunting, in fact, you wear them proudly like a warrior who is both tough and tender. Remember, you must always be tender. Without the tenderness, we don’t know what we are fighting for.

Everyone who is close to you, truly believes you won’t relapse again, but more importantly, you believe it yourself. You will always be cautious, but you are no longer afraid. Alcoholism shaped you, but it no longer defines you.

As a litmus test to truly show you have turned a leaf, your brother, who is your best friend and toughest critic, will stop worrying about you, or as much as a big brother can stop worrying about his little brother. Actually, scratch that, he will always worry about you, but he knows you won’t drink again. He’s been your biggest advocate since day one and now he can finally focus on other joys in life. He decides to have a child, a beautiful baby girl. Knowing that you can stand firmly on your own two feet, he pours his extra time into another loving vessel. He tells you he wants you to be the godparent for his child. Never in a million years did you think you’d be responsible for another life. You feel radiant.

Last but not least, on some evenings, when the weather is serene and it’s so quiet you could hear a pin drop, you’ll find yourself thinking about all the ways that life could have been different. Though you’ve thrown out or donated anything that brought up painful memories of drinking, you can’t erase the past. You don’t want to either. You’ll think about who you were, what you are, and you’ll cry. But this is the good kind of crying. These are tears of joy. You’re crying because you beat the odds… you weren’t a statistic.

P.S. I’m rooting for you as I would root for myself. Good luck.