We interred my father-in-law’s ashes last week. He died eight years ago, but my mother-in-law never got around to scattering the ashes and in the meantime, the Catholic Church made some kind of rule change about who gets into heaven based on how their ashes are handled. I wanted to say, “Oh, come on. If heaven exists, he’s been there for years! What, they’re going to evict him because of something someone on earth does wrong?” 21 years of marriage to a lapsed Catholic from a very un-lapsed family has brought a lot of those “Wait, what?” moments into my life.
But anyway. We interred the ashes, which made me think back to my father-in-law’s death. “We were both still drinking then,” I said to my husband later. I think back to sitting with his body before the funeral home guys arrived, or receiving visitors that afternoon, or milling around at the memorial reception, and in my memory I always have a glass of wine in my hand. And not just me. Everybody was drinking; well, at least all the Catholics were. (Sorry! I’ll stop.)
My husband nodded. “We were indeed.”
“Do you think you’ll feel tempted to drink the next time something that bad happens?” I asked.
He shook his head. “I don’t think so. What’s the point?”
That’s what it’s come down to for me too, almost four and a half years into sobriety. What’s the point of drinking? Was there ever one? It seems like such a random thing to do, especially in times of trouble. To think “Something happened that I don’t like, so I will consume a depressant that also makes me dumb.” I mean, I guess there’s no real harm if you’re not an alcoholic, if you’re just consuming, like, Scarlett O’Hara’s nip of brandy. But it doesn’t change anything, either. Tara still burned. Rhett still left.
I’ve been thinking about this because the last few months have been troubling for me, and not even in a full-on crisis way, where I could spring into action–more like gray spaces and liminality:
- I finished my book. It’s in my publisher’s hands now, being edited and designed and proofread and so on. It took me two and a half years to write. Now it’s done, and I’m glad–I needed to be done. But I’m also lost, because it was the center of my life, my lens for seeing the world, and nothing has taken its place yet. What do I orbit around now? I don’t know.
- Also, it’s finite now. A book starts as nothing but possibility, but eventually–unless you want to be one of those writers who turns in a 3,000 page manuscript ten years late–it has to become a settled thing, an artifact whose beauties and flaws are set. And in a childish, unrealistic way I deeply resent that. I don’t like closing doors. I miss when my book was boundless.
- I’m scared no one will read it.
- I’m scared lots of people will read it. To make this book work, I had to put aside the question What will people think of me? I didn’t want to worry about making myself look good, or grasp too hard for the likability often demanded of female characters. I wrote the frank, non-cloying book I wanted to write, and turned it in. And then, after my first meeting with the (huge) marketing and PR team, I went Ohhhhhh. Right. This is going to be offered to the public. The public with people in it. It’s a memoir, after all. I can’t pretend I didn’t actually do the stuff I did.
- Things are weird in non-book life too. My day job feels both turbulent and static at once in a way I can’t quite pinpoint. I’ve always believed in making my own meaning out of my career, versus waiting for someone to feed it to me. And I know that from time to time, meaning vanishes and needs to be found or re-made. That’s normal–cyclical, even. But this round of it feels unusually frustrating–like I’m alight with brain energy that wants to be solving complex problems but is only being called upon to do easy things.
- And OMG, the guy I wrote about over the summer–well, I may never fully understand what happened, but I guess he decided his narrative of what happened between us needed a villain, and hey! there I was. It led to him treating me in a clinical, somewhat dehumanizing way that genuinely shocked me because it was so unlike the man I’d known for two years. Given what he’d shared of his history with women–well, that and the few times he sort of congratulated himself for managing not to blame me for our shared situation–I guess I should have foreseen that at some point I’d flip from being an actual person to just some problem to ‘safeguard’ (his word) himself from. But I just didn’t. On top of the shock, I was very angry for a while. But when our paths cross now it’s something oddly like pity I feel that after all his talk of courage and lasting friendship and having a spacious heart, when it really counted he just…shrank. Folded. The way he trashed my trust and good will is unacceptable, but it still makes me sad for him to see him diminished like that.
- What else? Oh, family stuff where I’m struggling to be helpful without completely trashing my boundaries. A half-written novel I’m trying to get back to while I secretly wonder if fiction even matters in this burning-down world anymore. Not one but two dogs in Cones of Shame (allergy season hotspots). And this guy named Donald Trump–perhaps you’ve heard of him–who seems to be poisoning the groundwater every single fucking day that his mean, racist, rapey, treasonous, astonishingly stupid black hole of a self runs this country. I worry that just existing in his airspace is grinding me down into a subtly worse person. I really do.
So, it’s a lot. How am I coping with it? Well, writing, for one. Running. Intense cross-training. Sleep, walks, friends, therapy, sex, a small bump in Effexor dosage. Live music–19 bands since May, to be precise!–poetry, dogs.
Also: sugar, brooding, excessive clothes shopping, and highly distracting fantasies, with some self-pity and catastrophic thinking just to round things out.
What’s missing? Yep. And not just booze, but the thought of booze. I’m not saying “God, I need a drink” and then consciously choosing Nordstrom or Orangetheory or a concert as a substitute. By now, I’ve genuinely internalized these other strategies for calming down or cheering up. Even a year or two into sobriety, I couldn’t have imagined that.
I also couldn’t have imagined that this level of discomfort would actually be, well, okay. I mean, I don’t love it. But I’m able to step back and see that it didn’t come out of nowhere. I’m in a phase of huge change in nearly every part of my life. More change than when I got sober. And most of it is a joy, or has the potential to be. I’m so curious about what’s going to happen. But even joyful, curious change can kick your ass. I’m getting my ass kicked up and down this year. And I’m fundamentally all right. The center will hold.
And here’s the key thing: even if I weren’t fundamentally all right, I don’t think I’d be drinking. Because I know to my bones now that alcohol doesn’t fucking work. Everything that’s hard in my life right now would be so much worse. The guy entanglement would have been a train wreck, and I’d be the one acting like an ass afterward, not him. I’d be chronically exhausted. I’m sure I would have left my company by now because I never would have figured out how to take care of myself in such a rough environment. I’d be in a tailspin over Donald Trump, convinced he had robbed me of all personal agency, vs. just being a catastrophically dangerous president (which is plenty bad enough).
The only thing that would be easier for me as a drinker? The book stress. Because there would be no book. There would be no writing at all. I’d still be convinced that my fundamental purpose on earth had been a youthful phase. And I’d still be passively waiting for something else to take its place. And nothing ever would.
If you’re drinking to solve a problem, know that it isn’t working and it never, ever will. I’m not saying you should stop drinking; that’s your business. Maybe you don’t even drink at harmful levels. It’s still not solving any problems. It’s not helping you sleep. It’s not helping you get to know people, or have better sex. It’s not making bad things un-happen. It’s just blurring your view of those things during the time the alcohol is in your bloodstream. And when it’s out of your bloodstream, whatever you were running from will catch up to you. If you are drinking alcoholically, odds are good that you’ll end up running from more and more, slower and slower.
Here’s the other thing to know: you don’t have to do that. You don’t have to feel all that stuff gaining on you while you struggle to keep moving forward. Because on the other side of drinking, you will be all right. Not as fast as you’d like. But faster than you think. Will you become clean as the driven snow? I kinda doubt it, babe. You might take up smoking, or commence a deep study of chocolate, or get really angry. You might even, uh, become a sober married woman who still manages to get involved with a married man. (Can you believe some people?!) But you can slow down and walk, and see your problems at their actual size, and think about how to hold them with at least a little grace.
And you will be okay. You will.