Just. Stop.

On June 5, 2010 I was arrested for DUI. Before that moment, I was a closeted, suffering alcoholic feeling trapped in my addiction, desperately wanting to escape it but unable to IMG_3150 (1)see a way out. The moment I saw cop lights in my rear-view mirror, I knew it was over. In a nightmarish instant, as I was handcuffed and placed into the back of a police car, the solution presented itself: Just. Stop.

There is so much noise and dogma in the world about recovery, twelve steps, one day at a time and higher powers. Before the arrest, all of that overwhelmed me. Escape from my alcoholic patterns felt inaccessible, as if it required a gauntlet of complicated machinations of which I was simply incapable. But in that moment as I heard about my right to remain silent, I crossed a threshold into a new reality that had been there all along: Just. Stop.

That day was the beginning of what the addiction treatment world calls my recovery. A fuck-ton of recovering did indeed occur in the weeks, months, and years after that day. Contrary to the tenets of the “disease theory” of addiction, I do not consider my recovery from alcoholism a lifelong state requiring perpetual focus and work. Rather, it was a finite series of phases I passed through, ultimately emerging as a recovered person. This is not to say that I rid myself of the tendencies and fundamental wiring that led me down the road of daily alcohol abuse, but I learned how to see those parts of me with honesty. I learned how to be healthy with their presence as part of my being.

For the first three months, I was overjoyed at how easy it was and how brilliant the world had suddenly become with my newfound sobriety. I had solved my drinking problem! I was already on the other side of it! Life was amazing! I didn’t know it then, but it is common for newly sober people to experience this “pink cloud”: a period of euphoria and manic energy in the first few months. It is fueled by the physiological jolt when the daily inebriant is suddenly discontinued. There is an acute awakening of emotions and sensations; every day feels like a thrilling adventure. I remember being excited to go to bed at night during that time because I JUST COULDN’T WAIT for the next amazing day.

The three-month mark is a common point of relapse for addicts and alcoholics, and I know first-hand why that is (although I have never relapsed myself). As autumn began, my euphoria began to give way to a much less pleasant state of being. I had lost significant weight over the summer (removing several hundred calories per day and exercising like it’s your job will do that), and my weight loss continued to an unhealthy point. I started having trouble sleeping, and soon was sleeping only one or two hours at night. I became anxious and irritable, feeling like my skin had been peeled off exposing every nerve. I felt incomplete and became intensely dissatisfied with myself and every aspect of my life. I began taking anti-anxiety and sleeping medication and was able to return to a semblance of normalcy, but piercing angst was my constant companion for the next year.

In hindsight, I see that all the years of drunkenness had inhibited my development of basic coping skills. I thought about drinking sometimes because I knew it would cure the pain I was feeling. But, I had mentally removed that option from the realm of things available to me on the day I was arrested, so I never got anywhere near close to going there. No “one day at a time” for this gal – it’s all or nothing with me. I never wanted to revisit the decision again, and I never really have. I don’t drink; that’s part of who I am and will be for the rest of my life.

Over the next two years, my life became unrecognizable from what it had been before.  Where I lived, where I worked, who I lived with, my role as a mom, how I looked, what I did with my days, how I thought… It all changed, drastically.  I escaped the life of a lost, sick, and guilty alcoholic. I figured out how to blow my secrets into oblivion and claim my freedom.  I gathered my shame into a pile and set it on fire.  I flailed and squirmed and hurt and suffered as my being expanded into who I really am.  I went through a period of self-absorbed narcissism as I woke up, and l hurt people I love.  I behaved unpredictably as I rushed to fix everything. It felt like an emergency that my life was not what I needed it to be.  It all worked out.  New truths announced themselves, and I found the strength to accept them. I did the work of honest self-examination and self-acceptance. I settled down and learned how to live with balance.

On June 5, 2010 I decided to Just Stop, and I have recovered.

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Rotting: A Day in the Life of a Functional Alcoholic

The alarm clock sounds, and immediately I begin to compile the daily mental inventory of regrets from the night before. What horrible, hurtful things did I say? What embarrassing, inappropriate, ugly things did I do? How many drinks did I have? Once I finish the assessment of external damages, the self diagnostics start. Headache, horrific taste in my mouth, eyes grainy like someone threw sand in my face, nausea and heartburn; it’s all there, and the day is starting like every other. I get up, walk past the mirror, and see the puffy, red, shame filled eyes that greet me every morning. Familiar self-loathing joins forces with the physical symptoms of my hangover to make my misery complete. I shower and wash off as much of the regret as possible, and as I wake up I resolve to stop this depressing grim cycle. Starting today it will be different. This time I mean it.

I fortify myself with coffee and push myself into the day, telling myself that the suffering of this hangover is what I deserve for behaving the way I did last night. As I settle into the workday, the illness I feel gnaws at me. It takes a real effort to ignore the demonic voices screaming hateful epithets at me from the caverns in my brain where I keep them boxed up. Interacting with “normal” people helps me shore up the bullshit illusion I portray to the world that I, too, am normal. I get through the day, and quitting time is drawing near. The closer I get to the end of work, the stronger my yearning for my liquid regret-eraser becomes. It is calling to me, and the allure of it becomes so forceful that I can’t focus on anything else. Time to call it a day; something special is waiting for me.

By the time I get to my car, the need for it is so strong that I don’t even make it out of the parking lot before I pop the top off a beer. I always have a paper bag with a six-pack resting on the passenger seat, reliably at the ready to soothe me. Yes, it’s been sitting in my car all day, and yes, it’s piss warm. But with every delectable swallow, elation and relief spread through my being. Everything about the experience of this first beer of the day – the taste, the relaxation, the suspension of worry and anxiety – seduces me back to the same place at this time every afternoon. I look back disdainfully on the drama queen I had been just this morning, making such a big deal out of a few beers. I deserve this, and I am living a good life, doing all the things I’m supposed to do. Coloring outside the lines a bit feels good; I do not want to live the goody-two-shoes life of a straight-laced mommy. Fuck that! I’m a bad-ass rebel, road soda in hand. I’m drinking and driving down the road, thumbing my nose at the stifling obligations of motherhood, my job, and my marriage. I get another six-pack, because running out of this wonderful elixir is about the worst thing I can imagine.

I aimlessly drive the familiar rural roads, drinking my beer and setting myself free. I drink another warm beer, and then, reluctantly, I pause my little party because it’s time to pick up my child at daycare. I stuff the empties under the seat and chew a piece of gum. I walk into the play-dough and diaper scented preschool with the other mommies at the end of their days. I pretend I am just like them. I pretend that I am wholesome like them, and the furthest thing from anybody’s mind is that I might be buzzing with alcohol in my veins or that I might be jonesing for more. It’s kind of urgent that I get my kid in the car so I can get back to the business of washing myself away.

I always buckle my daughter into the car in the seat directly behind me rather than behind the passenger seat, because this way she will not be able to see what I am doing. This way I can hide the beer in my lap and the fact that I’m drinking it as I drive my child home. I have several tried and true strategies to hide the evidence that I’ve consumed three beers in the past hour; a great deal of mental energy goes into my hiding in plain sight. My husband and children never seem to notice anything. I know that he knows, he knows I know he knows, and we tiptoe around our mutual knowledge because neither of us has any idea how to fix this desperately broken situation. We have unwittingly choreographed this dance, the continuation of which requires that we don’t acknowledge much of anything outside of the mechanics of moving through these days.

We get the kids to bed, I continue to drink, and by the end of the night I have consumed between six and eight beers. I am good and numb; I stumble, I say cruel things, and I pass out. My husband and I have passed the evening working together in a familial way, but we haven’t really SEEN each other at all. We have carried out our shared parental responsibilities together, but we have shared nothing of ourselves with each other. There is fondness between us, and love, but no intimacy, and no understanding. With every day that passes like this, the distance between us gets a little wider. We are becoming increasingly bitter at each other and at our own inability to stop the failures we are creating with each passing day. It is like a slow motion disaster happening before our eyes. We want to stop it, but we don’t know where to start. If we think about it too much, we panic at how devastatingly broken we are, so we ignore it and continue because we do not know what else to do. We are living a wonderful life filled with all the trappings of the upper middle class, but it feels like a distorted nightmare. I am hoping that one day the morning resolve to end this diseased existence will be stronger than the sirens of oblivion and release that champion it. And I hope this happens soon, because I am rotting from the inside out.