My Three Days In A Relapse
By Christopher M. Jones
Content warning: graphic descriptions of addiction. Read a companion piece about alcoholism here.
It’s Monday afternoon. I’m subletting a house on a dead-end street with a middle-aged woman who makes fabrics in the basement. I’m right by a lake, and I can hear the geese, and the freeway. The ambient noise should make me less antsy, but it doesn’t. Something in the back of my mind is about to get me to stand up and make some very poor choices today.
I’ve lived in this city for exactly one month, and I haven’t had a drink in nearly six. In fact, since getting out of rehab I’ve made it through the end of summer, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and my 25th birthday without getting loaded. Even if you don’t have a drinking problem, that shit’s hard to swing (and if you don’t believe me, try it yourself sometime).
But I’d done it. When things got bad, I repeated my mantras. When things got worse, I remembered how much worse they’d become if I decided to get hammered. And through the most stressful season of the year, when I’d seen many friends with more experience in sobriety than myself cave to the pressure of the holidays, I’d stuck through it and stayed clean.
But now here’s an ordinary Monday afternoon. I’m in a little bit of a sour mood. I say to myself, “Fuck this. Let’s go get drunk.”
And this time, I mean it.
It wasn’t really one thing that made me start craving a drink that day; “craving” doesn’t even mean exactly what you think it means. I didn’t turn into Gollum at the sight of a good IPA, I didn’t start twitching or shaking or getting irate like you see on TV when a junkie or a lush needs their fix. I was just bummed out, and the memories and hypotheticals I’d used to scare myself away from a drink weren’t scary to me anymore. And Christ, man, I just . . . wanted to. They wouldn’t use words like “irrational obsession” in AA if it were something you’d sound sane explaining about yourself.
So I take the train up to the liquor store. I case it for what feels like hours, hoping for a lot of things: that I’ll find the perfect tasty-to-cheap-to-ABV ratio in the bottle I choose; that I’ll find the courage to call up my sponsor; that against all probability someone in this city of strangers will burst in, recognize me, and talk me out of it. But when I bring the bottle of Old Crow up to the girl at the counter, I know that I will find none of these things in what I’m doing. I do it anyway.
I go into some place called the Pita Pit, which as far as I can assess is just Subway for dorks. A girl who takes suspicious, uncomfortable joy in asking what I’d like to eat today makes me a tuna gyro. I scarf it down; some song from that stupid new album by The Weeknd is blaring over the speakers. The bad pop music, the stale health food, and the paralyzing dread all swirl together to make me feel like I’m on some bourgeois offshoot of death row.
And then I go to the bathroom, and I unzip my backpack. My shame is such that the whiskey and the chaser are still in the paper bag I bought them in even though, hidden in the backpack, no one could see them or know of them except for me. I unscrew the bottle of Old Crow, and I look at myself in the mirror before I take a sip. It’s repulsive, almost shooting out of my throat as soon as it goes down. I never remembered this stuff tasting that bad.
And I look at myself again, and I can’t place the expression I have until I realize that I look like someone is playing a mean joke on me that I’m too sensitive to appreciate. The simplicity of my failure is piercing. My eyes look as heavy as bowling balls to me.
On the way to Starbucks I keep telling myself I’ll put the bottles down on a street corner, that I don’t have to go any further with this. I don’t do that, obviously, and in a weird way, I can’t bring myself to stop now. Sometime after I order my green tea, start feeling the runs setting on from that awful gyro, and begin chugging bottom-shelf whiskey while taking a shit, I realize in literal terms that I am drinking Old Crow in a public bathroom at 3:00 in the afternoon on a Monday. Something clicks, and now the situation is too funny to feel as depressing as it should.
This is when I head home, and when my memory of that day more or less ends. I watch dumb gaming videos I’ve seen a hundred times before in my room and order Thai food on Seamless. I talk about The Office with friends on Twitter. The rest of that time has been lost.
I wake up at noon on Tuesday and remember that I relapsed (as though my hangover could let me forget), so I immediately begin drinking again. I finish the Old Crow, take a horrifyingly painful diarrhea dump, and head back to my room to keep watching the same videos I had passed out to.
I listen to Beauty Behind the Madness again, that crummy Weeknd album I mentioned earlier, and now that I’m wasted I’m starting to like the cut of its jib. “I only like it when you touch me, not feel me / When I’m fucked up, that’s the real me.” Weeknd, maybe you’re a millionaire singing about laying a trust fund bimbo in Beverly Hills and maybe I’m a college dropout cruising OkCupid for women who like Boris and style blogs, but deep down? We’re the same guy, dude.
Listlessly, a thought crosses my mind: “I should check out an AA meeting.”
Alcoholics Anonymous has been a mixed bag in my experience. In theory I have nothing against middle-aged white men who smell like the trunk of a Volvo, but when they’re the only people you end up talking to at social gatherings that ostensibly welcome all walks of life you start to get the idea that maybe you’re the one that doesn’t belong. Luckily, then, I find out about an LGBT youth meeting not so very far from where I’m staying. I can talk about the drinking! I can talk about the Queer Stuff I’ve thus far only alluded to on social media! This will fix everything!
Of course, I’m very drunk by the time the meeting is supposed to start, and furthermore I’ve gotten to that level of drunkenness by drinking all the liquor I had on my person, and it’s not like I want to drink, but as long as I’m drunk, why not drink more? Armed with this impervious logic I jump off the train and buy vodka. So I reach the Queer Center even drunker, and intrude on a meeting of what seems like gay guys organizing for Hillary Clinton before one of these men squeezes my calf and tells me that the AA meeting is in the other room. Embarrassed (but flirty!) I loudly trundle away from their gathering.
By the time I actually get to the meeting there’s only about 15 minutes left. It looks like I’ve missed a good talk; the kids are all teary-eyed. Everyone has great shirts. I want to be friends with all of them. The topic for sharing is “Why I’m Grateful to be Sober” and when someone starts giving her reasons, I remember that I’m not sober and I start crying, loudly. And they go around the circle one at a time and I remember why I came, really remember down in my bones. I came to meet people like me and to get some help with this pointless, hateful affliction I’ve been carrying. I’m going to tell them everything. I’m just like them and I’m going to tell them everything. I love them.
Then, as I’m about to speak, the meeting ends. Everyone starts talking to each other; there are no friends to make because they’ve all already been made. I go into the alley and I pull the vodka out of my backpack and I drink deep. I spend $15 I don’t have on an Uber to go somewhere I could’ve walked to if I’d checked my phone. Then I spend more money on a shwarma. Between sobs, things honestly aren’t too bad. Mentally I’m despairing and guilt-ridden and quasi-suicidal but my body, which I have chosen to rot, is decaying comfortably. After all, if I never make any friends, that means I must have never needed them in the first place. Right?
I wake up, drink, shit, drink. I remember a dream about moving to a sober living house in southern California, where my old roommate happens to reside. His snores would shake the walls and I remembered thinking I would rather die of cirrhosis then spend another night trying to sleep next to this cacophonous groan.
I sniff. The room is mired in a diseased odor of mango vodka, cold Thai food, and cum. There are bags everywhere.
Sometime over the course of the last few days I’ve found the time to arrange a meetup with a girl I met over OkCupid. It says in my profile I don’t drink, so hopefully if I turn up shitfaced she’ll just think of it as a quirky discrepancy. I badly misjudge my levels, however, and I almost don’t make it out of the house before I fall asleep.
But I go; I meet her in a hip hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint downtown. She’s gorgeous, even prettier than the pictures; she’s covered in ornate pagan tattoos, the most impressive being an intricate forearm illustration of the Tarot’s King of Pentacles. A few drinks in I feel the bumps and turns of the needlework with the tips of my fingers, awed.
We talk about mysticism, and Gucci Mane; Digimon, and architecture. She laughs easily, her face enrobed in a warm, mischievous grin. We walk to the river and kiss, but she seems to like the novelty of being with an internet stranger more than she feels any real attraction to me and so I don’t push and things don’t progress much further. We get a couple more drinks, chase some more conversation threads to their ends. She drives me home as I blast the same Freddie Gibbs song I’ve been listening to all day on her stereo. We kiss some more before I leave; I don’t expect to ever see her again and that makes me feel worse than it should. I’m starting to realize I don’t know what I like or what I want and I feel distant and pointless.
When I get in I find that my housemate has left me an angry note. Apparently I left a dreadful smear on the glass dining table after breakfast. “We are not your mothers to clean up after you.” That’s fair enough; right now, I’m nobody’s son. I drink what’s left of my vodka, peevishly, and the night blackens.
Since I had a bowl of cereal at 5am I wake up feeling physically much better than I had the previous two days, but I find that something about that night and that girl has hurt me immensely. Intimacy is like sleep in that you can’t go with a lack of it, catch up for one night and set yourself straight. The night was fun, but it wasn’t . . . much, and it felt like it could have been more. It seemed like we got along so well. There was a missing decimal point, like if I had done or said or been something different I could know this person better than I do. But we all know there’s no such thing as a one-way conversation.
I apologize to my housemate for my mess and she accepts it, testily. I can faintly overhear her and the other woman I live with shit-talking me from my room. Apparently I have been a very discourteous housemate over the past three days. I set out that afternoon with every intention to drink; I’d stop by the shitty pub by my house, pick up some whiskey on the way into the city, and let the night take me where it wanted to. I’m armed with an eighty track Motorhead playlist; I’m ready to drive this shit show into the ground.
But then I realize that if I got a bottle I’d have some left over tomorrow, and then I’d have to drink it. And maybe I might not want to drink it. There’s another young, queer AA meeting tomorrow evening; maybe I want to go to that sober. Step by step I push myself back to my room; maybe my relapse is over.
I search for work on Craigslist. I listen to an Earth, Wind & Fire album. I Tweet. I write all this. In a little while, I’ll go to bed, sober.
In rehab they tell you that relapse is a mental process as much as a physical one; that the process of returning to the bottle or the needle begins long before you pick it back up. I believed it, but I didn’t understand. I understand now.
There’s a certain type of lonely that gets impossible to explain with dignity if it goes untouched for too long. This feeling is no one’s fault, necessarily; after you live with it for long enough it just is. That feeling is why I drink. Not drinking didn’t make that feeling go away, but drinking makes it so much worse. I’d gotten so tired of being afraid I’d forgotten what the fear was made from. I resented it, and I challenged it, and I was punished by it.
And tomorrow is Friday, and I can’t just hope it doesn’t happen again. I have to make sure it doesn’t happen again. As helpless as I sometimes feel, no one can do this for me. I can’t defeat alcoholism by taking a drink any more then I can cure my diabetes by smashing my insulin pump. I am alone, and I require medicine. Nothing by force of hand will change this.
Three days is a long time to spend in a black hole, ignorant as a child and desperate for water.
This story first appeared at STIR Journal, and is reprinted here with permission.
Lead image: flickr/alexcoitus