My Relationship With Drinking Ended As The World Shut Down

I scurried up the front steps of the Washington National Cathedral as my eyes caught a glimpse of the entrance’s tympanum—a carved relief of half-formed human figures emerging from a cosmic vacuum; their eyes all closed, their bodies still partially embedded in the surrounding stone. Scanning the cathedral’s interior, I found the rector of my church, and together we joined the long procession of candidates waiting to be formally “received” into the Episcopal Church. It was a day I had been dreaming about for years, and I felt joyful—even euphoria—as I stood beneath the cathedral’s stained glass windows and towering archways, which moored its vaulted ceiling like a grove of heavy tree trunks. As I took my seat, however, I could feel the alcohol in my hungover body begin to exact a familiar toll. Beads of sweat soon collected around my forehead as a ghostly pallor overwhelmed my skin. My hands trembling, I clutched my grandmother’s crucifix that hung around my neck, clenching it as both a protective talisman and a reminder of why I was there. Yet nothing was going to keep the alcohol down. By the time of the bishop’s sermon, I had no other choice but to sprint to the back of the cathedral, where I proceeded to throw up all over its main entrance. Incredulously, I stared at the ejected contents of my stomach, praying that onlookers would assume I had the flu or was pregnant—anything but the truth. “Not to worry, dearie,” an angelic docent said tenderly as she hurried to my aid with a roll of paper towels, urging me to go to the bathroom and clean off the vomit that now coated my black dress and burgundy shoes. With tears rolling down my face, I thanked her profusely, though I knew better than to believe her. From the bathroom stall, I let out slow, silent sobs as I told myself that I had a serious drinking problem and did not deserve to be there.

Alcohol felt like a bifurcating portal

I wish I could say that this was my worst and last experience with drinking, but it wasn’t. By that point, my relationship with alcohol had become less like a love affair and more like an abusive relationship, as toxic as it was regenerative. The relationship had begun seven years prior during my freshman year of college. Before then, I had resolved never to touch booze, knowing all too well the damage it could do to a family and a childhood. What’s more, I felt comfortable in my role as the rule-abiding “good girl”: I was the “soft-spoken … stellar student” who preferred knee-length skirts, never stayed out late, and once feared an inadvertent whiff of Gorilla Glue had gotten her high. But in those early days of college, alcohol felt not just like an adhesive, but a bifurcating portal, immutably separating the experiences of those who drank from those who didn’t. By spring break, I’d finally relented. With those initial sips, I could sense all my insecurities, inhibitions, and pain wash away; it was as if a door to my freedom had finally been unlocked or a ceiling on my happiness had finally been shattered.

From there, alcohol became my principal passageway, crutch, and antidote. Under the camouflage of my inebriated alter ago, I felt liberated and empowered—like “one of the boys”—as I used drunkenness as a means of achieving an intoxicating but highly conditional form of freedom. By my senior year, I was a mess, though it all seemed so normal and expected. Girlfriends assured me that I was “crushing it,” while boys showered me with booze-fueled attention—at times respectful, though at other times dehumanizing and traumatic. On the day of my graduation, I sat alone, in the last seat of the last row of graduates, as a group of boys traded secrets about my previous night’s exploits, relinquishing me as a disposable memory, a comical punch line—nothing.

I used drunkenness as a means of achieving an intoxicating but highly conditional form of freedom.

In the “real world,” alcohol felt even more omnipresent than it had in college, imbuing everything from weddings, birthday parties, and family gatherings to work conferences, sporting events, movie nights, and trips to the grocery store. On napkins, magnets, greeting cards, and Instagram, wine was marketed as an essential badge of millennial womanhood: After spending our 20s working every day toward “wine o’clock,” we’d have our babies, only to succumb to humdrum domestic routines punctuated by “mommy juice” and “Wine Down Wednesdays.” As I followed suit and substituted shots of Smirnoff for bottles of Malbec, my drinking privately intensified, metastasizing from a collegiate indulgence to a desperate, destabilizing, and yet incredibly well-concealed dependence. In the end, my grandmother was the only person I could not fool: “I’ve been watching you, sweetheart, and I’m worried. This runs in your blood. I just want you to be careful.”

In a flash, my grandmother was gone, and, in my grief, I resolved to be better. I tried quitting, and when that didn’t work, I tried keeping drinking diaries, meditating before events, and limiting my intake to only special occasions. But no matter what I did, I found I could never go more than three days without drinking; and when I started, I could almost never stop. To even my closest friends and family, I seemed absolutely fine. I had no urge to drink in the morning, nor were there any DUIs, hospitalizations, or job losses. On the rare occasion that I would ask for help, the response was always either kindly placative or patronizing and dismissive: “You’re not that bad,” many said; “Don’t be so melodramatic,” others advised. Yet deep in my bones, I knew that alcohol was going to kill me. By my 27th birthday, drinking had mutated from the thing I thought had freed me to the thing that was taking away my well-being, my self-worth, and, at times, even my will to live. I had become addicted to alcohol, yes, but I had also become addicted to the way it made me hate myself—to the way it would commingle with my memories, activating a perverse and never-ending feedback loop of self-loathing in my brain.

Deep in my bones, I knew that alcohol was going to kill me.

When COVID hit early last year, I joined the rest of the world in using alcohol as a way to cope. As messages like, “Alcohol kills the virus,” “Keep calm and drink wine,” and, “Quarantine is the new five o’clock somewhere” inundated social media, I felt like I had been granted a miraculous doctor’s note, effectively normalizing what had for so long felt so shamefully abnormal. For days, I continued to drink to excess, though there was something inside me that started to feel fed up, as if I was half dead and on the edge of some final, irrevocable purge. As lockdown orders were installed and with this feeling building inside me, my husband and I decided to quarantine at my mom’s New England home, situated in a hushed, seaside town, still lodged in winter and utterly cut off from the world. On the surface, such extreme isolation may have seemed like a recipe for disaster. But it was here in this untouched and deserted place where the wind howled and the ground crunched underfoot—where there was no noise, no people to impress, no parties to attend—that I found a way to come back to myself. After spending four years trying to quit drinking in my “normal” life, it took just 18 days in isolation for me to say goodbye to alcohol and finally become free.

I found a way to come back to myself.

Of course, part of this early sobriety felt like hell. Every time I saw a wineglass or a beer bottle, my hands would shakily reach out, as if pulled by some magnetic compulsion; and every night, I would wake up in a cold sweat, having dreamed that I had relapsed. But the large and important part—the part marked by morning snowfalls, long walks, reading by the fire, Harry Potter marathons, and gardening without shoes—felt like heaven. As the snow white of winter unfolded into the daffodils of spring, my unlearning of alcohol gave birth to a gradual but profound relearning of my soul. And with time, the old me—the real me—slowly started to reemerge.

Looking back on the past 17 months of sobriety, I doubt if I could have ever quit drinking had it not been for 2020. “Isolation,” Holly Whitaker writes in her book Quit Like a Woman, is “an almost inextricable and necessary part of recovery”—it is “what saves you, what breathes you, [and] what makes your bones.” Yet just as the past year and a half locked me down, it also woke me up. In college, I was taught to associate alcohol with freedom, believing that, as Whitaker writes, “Drinking is a means of empowerment.” But far from “liberating” me, alcohol rendered me impaired, depressed, and muted, like a chilled rosé to drink all day. Even worse, it turned me into someone who chose to hide from her pain in addition to that which far exceeded her own life and privilege. As the world crumbled before my eyes, I repeatedly retreated into the numbness of booze as a means of not just anesthetization, but convenient abdication: Drunk me could only ever be half-attuned and half-accountable to the pain of her world, for she was only ever half-here.

The large and important part felt like heaven

With no road map or place to hide, these past 17 months have often felt like a dark forest, filled with monsters I can no longer thwart or evade. Yet through this disarming, I have also learned what can be gained by going through the darkness—by sinking in it and lingering with it, with my heart unshielded and my mind clear. While sobriety has certainly not been a magical elixir to dissolve the pain of the past, it has been a bridge to new strength and courage. While it is not the finish line, it is the stamina needed to run the race.

I so often think back to that day at the National Cathedral, when the best parts of myself comingled with the worst parts of my addiction. At the time, I assumed what had happened was a sign that I was undeserving of the church’s reception, though I somehow marshalled the resolve to leave the bathroom stall, return to my seat, and accept the bishop’s blessing.

Today, I see what happened as God’s, the universe’s, or my grandmother’s way of helping to unchain me, of helping me to see that I deserve a life free of alcohol—that we are all worthy of lives that are lived and gloriously felt.

Source: Read Full Article