Day 2,191: Scrapping & Yelling & Mixing It Up

[First, a quick announcement that I have an essay called “Yes, And” forthcoming from Amazon Original Stories on July 30th, and you can pre-order it here for just $1.99! This is a long, meaty piece about marriage, monogamy, and secrets. It took me three years to write and I really hope you enjoy reading it. (AOS publications are only available in the Kindle universe, but that doesn’t mean you need to own a Kindle–you can also just download the free Kindle app to your computer or phone.)]

*

My early soberversaries felt like all-out celebrations. Now I also recognize them as the anniversaries of terrible fear and very little hope. I can’t even say I was operating on blind faith that day, my Day One, because I didn’t expect my life to get better. Just…different. I walked into a blind tunnel because I’d exhausted all my other options. And I’d lived my whole life with a level of privilege that made the idea of running out of options seem pretty unlikely. Actually, I’m not sure I thought I could run out. And I guess I could have kept on like I was. But I’d somehow touched a last-ditch place in myself where the belief that I could change was stashed away, and it intersected with the momentary realization that to quit drinking, I would actually have to quit drinking.

I can only describe it as a moment of pure grace. It was awful. And it’s awful how easily it could have passed me by. But it didn’t and so today I’ve been sober for six years. Words like happiness and fulfillment don’t come naturally to me, the woman whose book epigraph comes from a song called “Unsatisfied.” But I’m here, really hereI’m being a person in the world. Scrapping and yelling and mixing it up.

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What I couldn’t know six years ago today is how many hundreds of emails and messages I’d one day get from people on their Day Ones. Sometimes when I read one, my own fear comes rushing back to keep company with the writer’s. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m grateful every fucking time for the reminder that I never, ever want to be on Day One again. And after the fear comes a little swirl of excitement for the freedom and space and scrapping that’s coming that person’s way if only they can wait out the early hard parts. I imagine them a year later, saying two words: worth it. 

Sometimes the Day One people apologize for writing. I’m sure you don’t need one more email like this. You don’t even know me, but…

Listen, missy/skipper: Yes I do. I do know you. We are the same. And we can only do this by telling each other about it. We can’t save each other but we can help each other and your letters help me. Thank you for them.

*

I wanted to celebrate this day with a Q&A, so a few weeks ago I put out a call on social media for questions, and then I added on a few others that frequently pop up. I had a ton of fun answering these and I hope you’ll get some value out of them, too.

Q. When did the feeling of constantly wanting a drink go away for good?

When I first quit, my job in publishing required a lot of boozy socializing with writers, and I trudged through about a month of cocktail parties and dinners feeling like I’d relegated myself to the children’s table forever. I tried to think of it as athletic training to make the wild discomfort and…fury, really…more bearable. That passed, but it took about six more months for me to stop being hyper-aware that I was doing X, Y, or Z sober for the first time. I didn’t necessarily WANT a drink all those times–often it was pride I felt, not craving, and pride was a novel and thrilling sensation. But I was absolutely WATCHING myself have experiences for those six months instead of just having them. Which was useful, honestly. That’s how you develop strategies and if-then plans and self-knowledge.

As for the last time I wanted a drink? Three days ago. There’s a scene in the first episode of Fleabag S2 set at a fraught-to-hostile family dinner where everyone at the table is guzzling wine in a failed attempt to cope. A character who has been lying about being in recovery suddenly says “Fuck it!” and pours himself a glass in front of God and everyone. It’s as dark and ugly a moment as they come in comedy. So naturally, it made me want a drink. It wasn’t even drunkenness I was craving so much as that initial moment of abandon. Fuck it! I’m going to obliterate whatever is bothering me, or at least my awareness of it. I have other forms of wild abandon in my life, but I don’t have access to that form anymore and I suddenly wanted it.

“You know I hate the t-word,” I said to John. “But that triggered me, dammit.”

“It is very on-brand that this show about unhappy, self-destructive alcoholics would be the thing to trigger you,” John said. Uh, fair.

So, I wanted a drink for about twenty seconds three days ago. But it stands out for being so rare–it happens maybe 2-3 times a year, max, and a brief review of the ways alcohol is basically poison for my happiness and my life takes care of it.

Q. Did you do AA? If not, why not? [And variants, like ‘What is it like to stay sober outside of AA?’ and ‘What kinds of non-AA programs are available IRL, vs online?”]

I’ve dabbled in AA and made personal use of some of the program elements, but I didn’t “do” AA in anything like the usual sense. This wasn’t a conscious decision at the outset so much as the result of my usual approach to major change–live with the potential in my head for ages and ages, suddenly do it at a moment that surprises even me, and then adapt to the results a bit before I tell anyone else. Around month eighteen, I did attend a few meetings, and went to one as recently as April.

Sometimes I find meetings comforting, sometimes inspiring, sometimes depressing. It all depends on the mix and the mood of the room. At the April meeting, several decades-long sober people in a row talked in grim tones about how they know their disease is stalking them at every minute–‘doing pushups outside’–and I left feeling awful, almost doomed. I don’t want to live that way. I once wrote an essay about attending the office Christmas party sober and a man with 27 years of sobriety said “I take my sobriety seriously, so I don’t go to those parties.” I don’t want to live that way either. Well, I would *love* to avoid office parties, actually, but I don’t want to live in a state of paranoia and fear. Addiction took me OUT of life and now I want to be in it. So when I land in a meeting that grim, or one where people are berating themselves harshly for moral defects, it can spook me for weeks because my personal sobriety program rests on the belief that sober life is AMAZING and that I am fundamentally a powerful and worthy person with, yeah, some stuff to work on.

All that said–I’ll probably continue to hit a meeting now and then. I might work the steps someday. My only unshakeable view re AA is that it is NOT the only way to achieve sustained sobriety. It is ONE way. There are also other step-based programs like Secular Sobriety or the Buddhist-based Refuge Recovery. There’s vipassana meditation. There’s therapy, and medication-assisted therapy. I think most people need SOME kind of programmatic approach with a healthy dose of introspection, community, and help building new habits. But in the absence of double-blind studies showing AA to be more effective than other methods, I say choose what works for you (which may well be AA!).

[Also, US-centric tangent, but doesn’t it seem a bit… unconstitutional for American judges to sentence people to AA, given its religious foundations? And I say this as someone who isn’t personally bothered by the higher-power thing. But I live in Seattle, where it’s treated very lightly and generally. I’ve known lots of people who live in small towns where AA meetings come with a heavy dose of Christian proselytizing–and again, I’m not blaming the program itself for this, it’s all in the mix of people–and I don’t see how making someone choose between AA and jail is remotely in line with our constitutional freedom of and from religion. So judges, fucking stop it. Sentence people to treatment, sure, but let them pick from a range of options.]

Q. How long did it take for your creativity to kick back in after you got sober? Did it come back naturally and did you expect it to come back?

I absolutely did NOT expect it to come back. Ever. When I got sober I had not written outside of work for twelve years. I’d convinced myself that the thing I’d spent most of my childhood, adolescence, and twenties on had been nothing more than a gambit for approval. Even when I took a job in publishing and felt actual physical twinges hearing authors talk about their work, I ignored them. “Your job is to help real writers write, not try to be one,” I told myself. “You tried that, remember? It didn’t work out.”

I started this blog a month into sobriety as a way to make sense of my own experience and be part of the sober community and hopefully make some sober friends. I told myself it absolutely was NOT a return to capital-W writing. But my posts got longer and more carefully constructed. I caught myself getting picky about how the clauses balanced in a sentence, or how something sounded read out loud. All of which made me very nervous.

One day about six months in I found myself with an idea for a short story, and this time instead of resisting I sat down and wrote the first page. And it’s hard to explain, but as I tinkered with the minutiae of sentences and thought about what to leave out and looked at the white space on the page, something settled into place in not just my brain but my BODY, too. I never got past the first page of that story, but I’ve been writing consistently ever since and steadily getting better at it. At first I didn’t care if anyone else ever read my work. Then I thought it would be nice to have an audience. Now I have large and serious ambitions, the kind we think of as male. But it all comes back to sitting around forever, tweaking what I’m trying to say until my body says I got it right. And I absolutely would not have the stamina, clarity, or ambition be doing that AT ALL if I were still drinking.

Q. What did your addiction destroy forever? 

Time. So much fucking time. I struggle to an irrational degree with the sense that I’m living on borrowed time–that I’ll somehow be STRUCK DOWN now that I’m finally getting started. [It happens, after all.] Sometimes my whole existence feels precarious. And for the most part, the lost time wasn’t even spent on fun tipsy shenanigans, but on worrying and justifying and breaking literally thousands of promises to myself. If I’d just fucking quit when I first realized I needed to, I could have saved myself so much fear and self-hatred and gained that much more time. But I had to see how long I could get away with it, I guess. I had to wear myself down to a stub before I gave in. However many books I’ve written by the end of my life, I imagine an asterix next to that number for the two or three extra I could have written in my decade of heavy drinking.

Q. How do you feel about the new sobriety trend?

I know there’s been some backlash to this recent rather goofy New York Times article, including from some brilliant people I adore. And I certainly agree with the pushback on the notion that you can call yourself “sober” when you’re actually just a light drinker. That’s the kind of language slippage that can be dangerous for people who really do need to quit completely. But otherwise…I guess I don’t see the harm? It’s a trend that leads to better health, mental clarity, clearer communication, better driving. It’s not like when people were eating TIDE PODS. Yes, it’s been commercialized and people are making money off of it. Same with yoga. Same with punk. Nothing is pure, least of all me. 

Also, I’ve talked to so many readers and friends who feel like freaks because they’re trying to get sober as college students, or while dating online, or playing in rock bands. If the sobriety trend can make their lives a little easier by popularizing the idea that it’s possible to be cool or sophisticated or edgy without alcohol, that’s great. Because you absolutely do not need booze to be sexy AF and the more the world knows that, the better off even normal drinkers will be. So, yeah. I don’t need for sobriety to be fashionable, but I’m not upset that it is.

Q. Now that you are sober, would you rather fight one elephant-sized duck or ten duck-sized elephants?

A. I don’t want to fight ANYTHING the size of an elephant, and how could I fight ten little baby anythings the size of a duck? Here is what I will do: I will dress the duck-sized elephants up in charming outfits, give them little beds to sleep in, and as a fight we will challenge each other to Candyland. Though I’m probably gonna let them win just to make them happy.

Q. Do you have a different way of approaching the world than before?

I am profoundly more confident and brave than I was as a drinker. I mean, on a moment-to-moment basis I’ll worry like anyone else about whether the thing I’m writing is awful or my legs look fat or I said something thoughtlessly hurtful. But it passes because fundamentally, I’m standing on solid ground now and my actual self is no longer made of vapor. And that’s because the key to long-term sobriety is YOUR LIFE CAN’T BE A NIGHTMARE. It can have problems–and oh, it will–but it can’t be something you are chronically desperate to escape. So getting sober required me to do some wacky things like have boundaries, and respect my own energy levels vs pushing myself into exhaustion, and get over the desperate need to please all the people all the time. And as a prize I get to have a gravity I didn’t before.

Also, I can talk to anyone now! It’s an ongoing thrill, which is funny because I’m still very much an introvert who often doesn’t particularly WANT to talk to anyone. But I can, in a direct and authentic way. Part of it is from ending up in a position where I give interviews and do public readings and panels and the like. But I was sober for years before any of that happened and sobriety alone cut my social anxiety in half. I have found that any two sober strangers meeting for the first time will tend to get RIGHT INTO the heart of things–about their sobriety or anything else on their minds–and I’ve carried that through to my interactions with civilians. Possibly to their bewilderment.

Q. Is there a point where the changes level out and you think ‘yep, this is me?’ (From someone with two years)

A. Sort of? There’s definitely a point where you stop being hyperaware in that “Oh look, I’m sober on Christmas!” way. That happened probably around year three for me. And I’ve definitely settled into a new understanding of important parts of myself as they relate to family, marriage, work, sex, etc. I’m clear in ways that I wasn’t before. But at the same time, I’m still peeling back layers.

Also, my actual life has changed dramatically since I self-published “Enjoli” and it blew up. The last few years have felt like stepping from stone to stone across a huge pond. And based solely on what I already know is likely to happen in the next few years, I suspect I haven’t even reached the middle of the pond. (So please feel free to paddle out with snacks and gossip.) So the specific weirdness of my life is an X factor in my own change process. But even without that, I suspect the self-discovery goes on as long as we want it to. And to some extent, we can decide when the time is right to really dive in, vs take notes for a later time.

Q. Do you think it’s possible for a gray area drinker to moderate?

I think it’s POSSIBLE, yes. But–and this is based solely on my own observations–it’s most likely when someone has abused alcohol for a limited time, maybe in reaction to a specific life crisis. Because you’re just undoing a bad habit at that point, not a whole way of life. And maybe the habit hasn’t changed your brain yet. Again, not an expert, but I’d encourage folks to read about the neurology of addiction–Annie Grace’s This Naked Mind is a great starting point. Because at some point, a switch flips for a lot of us, and after that you’re just fighting your own brain, and I don’t like your odds. 

Generally, I’d say that if you’ve tried multiple strategies for moderating and failed, or you’re succeeding but more obsessed with thoughts of drinking than ever, you should just quit. Seriously, just pull the band-aid off and quit. You have much more fun things to do with your time than make yourself miserable trying to control your use of a substance you’re fucking addicted to. I can tell you with absolute sincerity that sobriety is 1.4 GAZILLION times easier for me than moderating ever was.

Also, I’m thinking about how popular the term ‘gray area drinker’ has become. I think it’s very useful in establishing alcohol abuse as a spectrum, vs the old binary of “face-down in a gutter” vs “everything is just fine!!!!!” That said: if you think of yourself as being in the gray area of a spectrum that *kills a fuckload of people*, do you really want to stay anywhere near the gray? I personally don’t even want to see you in the Dove Gray or Highland Mist part of that spectrum. I think you should come hang out with us down in Bancroft White or Cloud White or Ether.* Seriously. Don’t linger in what you have already identified as a perilous zone because addiction is generally a progressive disease and the odds of you being the special-flower exception are not great.

*all real paint colors because I am a professional and professionals do their research.

Q. Do you consider yourself an alcoholic?

Yeah, pretty much, whatever that word even means. I was very uncomfortable with it at first, because it was not exactly my girlhood dream to grow up to be an alcoholic and because I resist labels in general. I started using it because it’s such useful, unambiguous shorthand. (People might continue to push booze on you if you just say you don’t drink, but bring out the a-word and they tend to back off.) Occasionally a reader will get mad because they don’t think I was enough of an alcoholic to even quit drinking, let alone write about it, which is…well, that’s FRAUGHT, isn’t it? Like “Dear reader, thank you for your feedback and I apologize for not drinking myself into total liver failure.”

Basically, I think alcoholism is in the eye of the beholder. I know women who drank two glasses of wine at day at their WORST who now consider themselves recovering alcoholics. I know people who drank waaaaay more than that who don’t want any label. You get to decide what if anything to call yourself. The BIG thing for me is that you shouldn’t have to identify as an alcoholic, gray area drinker, problem drinker, etc. to decide you don’t want to drink anymore. You’re allowed to just up and quit, temporarily or permanently, for any reason you like, and you don’t owe anyone an explanation.

Q. I need a new band–help me out! 

As a person with six years of sobriety, I CAN HELP with this!!! Here, more or less off the top of my head, are six bands/acts (one for each year!) I think should be much better known, along with a Spotify sampler of entry tracks for each. Enjoy!

  1. 1) The multi-racial Atlanta trio Algiers, who I would describe as…let’s see…apocalyptic industrial gospel-punk? Lyrically they can be a bit didactic for my taste–we are talking about a band with song titles like “Irony. Utility. Pretext.”–but the overall impact is still pretty astounding. DO NOT MISS THEM LIVE, and bring someone you really really like with you because the show is sexy AF.
  2. 2) Fellow Seattleites Hey Marseilles. If the Decemberists could just relax and stop trying to impress everyone with their smarts and homework and stuff, they’d sound like Hey Marseilles. They make my heart hurt in a good way and I love how Seattle-specific their songs are and how well they use horns and strings. If you are trying to trick someone into falling in love with you, you could do worse than to put a HM song on a mixtape for them.
    3) Joan as Police Woman. This is the stage name of Joan Wasser, who writes and performs in the part of the Venn diagram where Amy Winehouse and Cat Power and maybe Lana Del Rey overlap. I don’t really know how else to describe her except, you know, “very good.” Bonus: to the best of my knowledge, she’s a sober chick.Â
    4) Jules Shear. Jules is known mostly as the original host of MTV Unplugged and has written a bunch of songs made famous by other people, like “All Through the Night” and “If She Knew What She Wants.” His own singing voice is often described most kindly as an “acquired taste” and less kindly as “a yowl.” I find it warm and human and almost indescribably lovely. Many years ago I met a cute guy under an entire combo platter’s worth of inconvenient circumstances and it came up in an early conversation that he was a Shear fan and I thought “well that’s just fucking great, now we’re probably going to actually fall in love” and we did and it brought no end of joy and misery. But that’s how it is with other people who love Jules Shear, yowl and all. You just know they get you.Â
    5) Look Park. Also speaking of voices…the first time I heard Fountains of Wayne, Chris Collingwood’s instantly made me think ‘oh, here’s a friend.’ A few albums in, FoW started to feel gimmicky and I drifted away, but I never lost my love for their early stuff, and I was delighted to learn last month that Collingwood is now fronting the lovely orchestral pop group Look Park. And even more delighted to hear that he’s now clean, sober, and stable after a very hard crash.Â
    6) Wheat. I’ve loved this band hard for a long, long time. Their late 90s albums Medeiros and Hope & Adams are flat-out masterpieces in the Pavement-meets-Mercury-Rev vein. (If that’s actually a vein.) Just astonishingly beautiful. Then, things went a bit sideways. Their major-label debut alienated old fans and didn’t draw many new ones–though it’s actually not a bad set of songs, just wildly overproduced–and they got dropped and as if in reaction, the album after *that* was so oblique and opaque that even a super fan like me couldn’t find an entry point. But those first two records are so perfect, so timeless, that demanding more of the same would feel not just greedy, but vulgar.

Day 1,605: Book Cover Reveal!

Psst…wanna see what my book looks like? It looks like this: Coulter_NothingGood

I used to work in publishing, so I can tell you that landing the right cover can be tough and involve lots of revisions and arguments. (You’d be surprised how many writers aren’t crazy about the final cover they end up with, simply because the cover that sells a book most effectively may not match the personal vision a writer has been living with for years.) I was already a huge fan of Alex Merto and thrilled he’d be designing my cover. Still, I half-expected to hate the first round of explorations, and opened the file nervously.

Six concepts were included, and I loved FOUR of them and liked the fifth. There was only one that didn’t work at all for me, and even that one was conceptually cool and thoughtful–I just didn’t think it was right for the book. My husband and I sat at the kitchen counter, stunned. “How can they all be this good?” I said. “It’s not normal.

This one, though was the clear winner among winners for both of us–and for my editor, my agent, and the handful of friends I consulted.  And so it was that we landed my dream cover in one round. It’s not lost on me that I went into the process insisting I didn’t want to use any obvious wine imagery, for fear of it looking cliched or too cutesy. I guess a great artist can take the thing you’re sure you won’t like and turn it on its head, because I get more excited about this cover every time I look at it, and I’ve looked at it a lot.

(Same thing happened when I bought my wedding dress, by the way: I marched into the shop grimly determined to buy the plainest, least fairy-princess dress they had, only to eventually walk down the aisle in a gigantic tulle skirt.)

Oh! You can pre-order my book now too, if you’d like. I think you probably should do that. It doesn’t come out till August 8th, so just think of it as buying yourself a late-summer present way in advance. (Another insider tip: healthy pre-orders on Amazon and other online booksellers can help physical stores gauge how much interest there is in a book and make them more likely to stock it.) There will also be an e-book version, of course. But the paperback is so beautiful, and compact enough to tote around in your bag or backpack, so you can take it everywhere you go. (But seriously, I had a vision of a book portable enough for someone to carry around and dip into at lunch or stoplights or whenever, and that’s exactly how it turned out.)

And yes, an audiobook is planned, and it looks like I’ll be reading it myself! (Sorry if you were hoping for Michael Caine as narrator.) I’ll post a pre-order link for that once it’s available.

Isn’t this just amazing? I’m amazed. I’m also still sober. And these two states are connected.

Day 1,586: Tara Still Burned

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 workEverything 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.

Day 1,495: Stonewall

Someone was rude to me in a work meeting last week and I called him on it. It wasn’t a big drama. He cast a condescending aspersion, I calmly corrected it and requested he not do that again, he muttered an apology, and the meeting moved on.

Except the me part of the meeting. As the tide of the moment receded, I sat there a little stunned. Who just said that? I wondered. Did I?  

*****

I learned young that defending myself out loud led to pain. My young parents didn’t know what to make of me, their hyper-attuned, hyper-verbal starter kid. Even my first word was two words: pretty flowers. On car trips they’d pay me not to talk, and I don’t blame them a bit. What I do take issue with: the sweeping judgments on my character that flew so freely in our house. They didn’t attack over things I’d done. They attacked for how I was. Too anxious, too sad, too scared, too ungrateful.

Look, I’m under no illusions that raising a scapegoat was fun. But in my defense, I only ever asked to be raised as a child. I did not request special assignment as the Locus of Discontent. It pissed me off. I knew I was better than the words they used to describe me, and because I was both hyper-verbal and too young to see around corners, I argued back. It never worked out well for me–at all–at all–but I kept pressing my own bullheaded little case because I knew. I was eight years old and I knew I deserved to be seen more clearly.

And then I stopped. I just got too fucking tired to fight with angry, scary adults all the goddamn time.  Or if I occasionally couldn’t resist, it was in the spirit of a soldier who knows she’s about to die in battle and says, you know what, fineHeedless and pre-numbed.

*****

I lived. No one’s hurt me in those ways in decades. I rarely even jump at sudden movements anymore. And as part of my adult toolkit I even learned how to pretend to have a productive conflict with another human being. I read all the books about the I statements and not globalizing and empathy and whatnot. In marriage and especially in sobriety, I’ve even learned how to sort of back my way into an actual grownup argument, with real feelings and everything.

But there’s an overload switch in my brain and sometimes it flips. It is especially flip-prone when someone is mad at me, and “mad” can mean anything from momentarily annoyed to seriously disappointed to fuck-her-and-the-horse-she-rode-in-on. And because I now have people in my life who actually see me, sometimes “mad” just means “I know there is so much light and humor and wisdom inside you, Kristi, and I guess I was just wondering why the flying fuck you aren’t showing any of it to me right now. Thoughts?”

That’s a good kind of mad. But my switch flips and I go mute. Or close enough to mute for the girl whose first word was two. I can’t talk because I can’t think. And I can’t think because I am measurably stupider in this state. The part of my brain with the words and nuances and opinions about politics and novelists and jeans and chicken has been shoved aside by the part that’s just looking to get me off the battlefield before I get humiliated or hit or locked in my room.

*****

It’s not fun, right? It’s not rewarding to try to hash something out with a normally chatty and open woman who is suddenly staring glassy-eyed just to the left of you. It’s not fair when you express your own difficult emotions as clearly and kindly as you can, only to watch this chick who is famously good with words go full-on aphasic and treat you like you might be packing and trigger-happy.

But what can I say, except that sometimes I’m not there? I leave without wanting to. The kid I was is trying to save me. I don’t need her to but she doesn’t care. Maybe she’s still trying to prove herself. Maybe this is how she gives shape and meaning to all her pain (because otherwise, what the fuck was it for?). She’s bullheaded, after all. And surprisingly forceful.

Until a few years ago I didn’t know what was happening. Or I knew–I’m not disassociating, not truly gone, just mute and embarrassed. But I hadn’t connected the dots. I was 44, sober for just over a year, when I realized I wasn’t just a stonewaller or a bad fighter; I was scared of real harm. Finally I learned to, as they say, use my words. I’m overwhelmed right now and having trouble processing. Or Can we just sit for a minute while I catch up? Or to anyone close enough to know the shorthand: just I’m not here right now. I’m sorry. I’m just not here. 

*****

I messed up a man’s life this year, and he messed mine up too. But we are decent and earnest and thoughtful people, the kind of people who generally take care not to wreck stuff. We set out with our separate checklists of repairs, and at the same time tried to look after our originating friendship, which had been the kind that you just don’t find outside of college, or maybe your 20s. Some of my repairs turned out to be more like renovations, but not the catastrophic kind, more like adding some windows than gutting the kitchen. (Others were–are–slow, expensive, and grueling. But I should have seen them coming from a hundred miles away and instead I marched right into them. I don’t get to complain.)

I didn’t know the specifics of his repairs, because we’d agreed not to share details with each other. But based on not much more than hope and naiveté, I decided that the trouble I’d catalyzed in his life had probably been short-lived and shallow–my disruptive presence a blip–and that the tentative new back-to-friends reality between us would solidify. Did I want to be that easily forgotten? God, no. Especially not by him. It hurt to even contemplate. But if it would help to set his world back on its axis, well, who was I to resist the sacrifice.

So we bumbled along, trying to reset our friendship in a start-and-stop way. And then one day I said in passing Looking forward to our coffee tomorrow! and he said Oh yeah! Actually, do you have a second to talk? Right now? Somewhere private? And five minutes later we were leaning against the granite facade of an apartment building while he explained that actually, well, no. No coffees, no conversations, no quick walks around the block to catch some sun. Not for now, anyway. Not when he still had so much left to resolve.

Even as I listened my switch was starting to flip. The ambush-like timing had primed it and the actual words did the rest.

What he said: I need more time to process everything and I can’t do it while I’m still spending time with you. And It’s nothing you’ve done. And I need to take responsibility for my own life. 

What I heard: My life was great until you came along. I don’t want you anywhere near me and I wish we’d never met. 

He finished explaining himself and waited for me to respond, because he didn’t know Elvis had left the building. I turned my face toward the granite wall and just kind of…watched it while I tried to think of how to defend myself against the things he had not actually said. He patiently watched me watch the wall, which was really very nice of him. And then finally I came up with some words:

I’m just sort of looking at this granite. 

Yeah. That’s how I rose to the occasion. What I meant: I’m not here. I’m sorry. I’m working so hard to stay but sometimes the kid won’t let me. I’m sorry. I’m just not here. 

What he heard: Granite. 

*****

It wasn’t long after that someone was rude to me in a meeting and I called him on it. It wasn’t a huge drama. I just did it and then sat there stunned. Who just said that? You did, I thought. Cleanly and clearly. That was you. 

It’s not that the kid’s gone, but she slacks off more these days. Maybe her threat meter is more finely tuned. Maybe she’s just tired of defending me, the same way she got tired of defending herself. Or she shows up only when she knows I’m truly vulnerable (GraniteGate) and lets me handle lower-risk situations (meeting dude).

And even during GraniteGate, I broke through eventually. I rallied, sort of. By which I mean I was ineloquent and defensive and likely a general pain in the ass, but I was there, doing what I could, and she let me stay. And when our talk ended and he said Do you want to walk around the block once before we go back?, she just watched quietly while I said–cleanly and clearly–Yes. But I think I want to do it alone. 

Day 1,439: Desire Isn’t Lack

Have you seen the streaming series I Love Dick? It’s a dark comedy (based on a 1997 cult novel) about husband-and-wife artists at a residency in Marfa, Texas. The wife, Chris, falls fast and hard for Dick, the macho artist who runs the institute. Dick is totally uninterested in Chris, which doesn’t stop her from writing him scores of increasingly unhinged letters.

“Dear Dick: Every letter is a love letter,” the first one starts, because Chris’s goal is to seduce. (Spoiler: it doesn’t work.) Later letters are defiant: “Dear Dick: Did you think this was going to be pretty?” (Spoiler: it’s not.) Then they move into stranger, richer territory: a celebration of Chris’s by-now rampaging, catastrophic desire. “Dear Dick: Desire isn’t lack. It’s excess energy. A claustrophobia inside your skin.”

“Desire isn’t lack.” Were you raised to think that desire can be additive? I wasn’t. I don’t blame my parents. I blame the entire fucking world for raising me with advice like be happy with what you have and some people would be thrilled to live your life and a hundred years ago women couldn’t do x, y, or z at all, so be glad you at least get a chance.  

Don’t get me wrong:  gratitude is good. And people mean well, mostly (I guess). But it all comes down to: your wants are wrong. Both genders get this message, but it’s hardly news that female desire is especially apt to be viewed as unsettling, even monstrous, if it’s not contained. (When’s the last time you heard anyone say “Well, girls will be girls” over a failure of impulse control resulting in harm to someone else?)

Intellectually, I’ve known for decades that there was nothing wrong with my desires, my female desires. I went to college in the era of so-called “sex-positive feminism.” Like any bold young woman of the time, I flounced from bed to bed (to floor, to beach, plus one tree this one time), up for anything, without demanding those letters and sodas soon to be immortalized by Liz Phair. (Well, plus I was already kind of a junior drunk–who wanted sodas?)

In fact, I didn’t demand much of anything, because my only real desire, or at least the one that drowned out most others, was to be wantedTo fill that gaping need from my childhood with men’s approval. To be worthy of the male gaze, which I was learning to challenge in my literature and film classes even as I pursued it outside the classroom, or sometimes from a guy right across the seminar table.

I got really good at being wanted. It’s not that hard. It’s more or less performance art, albeit not the kind that wins you a residency in Marfa. Even in my egalitarian marriage I couldn’t help but try to make myself into the perfect blank slate for however my husband might want to see me in the moment. How could I stop, when I didn’t even know I was doing it?  And the harder I worked at being wantable and lovable, the more my own wants faded away, because I hadn’t saved any energy for them. Certainly in my last decade of Big Drinking, which roughly coincided with my 30s, I was far too preoccupied with making my life seem Totally Fine and Normal to want much of anything. By the end, I would have told you that what I wanted didn’t matter anyway.

Then I stopped drinking. Some months afterward I started to like myself (so weird), and some months after that I started to notice that I had the ability to want stuff, all kinds of stuff: to write, to run alone in the woods, to make eye contact with people. And some months after that I realized with a small shock that it’s not just male eyes that have a gaze–that I have one, too, and it’s not necessarily always trained on the exact person I am married to. Which is where I got on the road to realizing that desire can be blissful and mystifying and awkward and a major pain in the ass, but one thing it isn’t is a lack. It’s more. It makes life bigger, or maybe just more crowded. Denser in the margins.

Oh, and desire–both projected and received– is fun. Well, at least it is as a parlor game, or a flexing of muscle. I guess I should have known that at some point I would meet my match. That I’d stumble onto desire with, you know, meaning and that the combination would knock me on my smug, female-gaze-y ass.

(I should acknowledge at this point in the story that there is a fine line between discretion and irritating coyness, and that you might not think I’m landing on the right side of it.)

I landed not so long ago in a case of highly inconvenient, non-parlor-game desire, of a severity known as “lovishness.” Maybe “landed” is too passive a word, given that the road in took many months, scores of conversation hours, was the product of hundreds of small decisions made by both parties. And yet in retrospect we recalled a moment of mutual, literal dizziness, as if we had been dropped from a great height into a new territory and were still a little airsick. So: yes. Landed it is. I landed. He landed. And we stared at each other in a woozy mix of swoon and friendship and fear.

I had not planned to experience a desire bigger than my ability to philosophize about it. Lovishness seriously freaked me out.  “I know this is supposed to mean I need to work on my marriage,” I told a wise girlfriend. “But I like my marriage! We’re happy. I just kind of want this other thing too. Maybe I just need to work on myself. Maybe my lunacy is so deep that I can’t even see the problems this is a symptom of.”

My friend waited patiently for my shame-spiral monologue to end. Then she said: “When married women have feelings for other men, we always get told it’s because we’re not working hard enough. Maybe you don’t need to work on anything. Maybe you’re just having a human experience.”

“I guess I thought I’d had all my human experiences by now,” I joked. Well, I tried to make it sound like a joke. even though on some level I wasn’t. But I’m a different kind of human than I was 1,439 days ago. I’m, like, here. I see and feel stuff.

“You’re just so awake,” said the man whose emotional landscape had become layered with mine. This was months ago, before we’d talked about the thing we already should have been talking about. At the time I thought to myself: well, yeah, duh, because I’m sitting within arm’s reach of you. But I knew that wasn’t the whole reason–that I wasn’t some blank-eyed doll who only came to life under the gaze of the right man. I knew he’d seen it in me because it was already there to be seen, because I am. I’m awake. And being awake is even harder and scarier and more tiring than I would have expected. It demands courage and skill at pushing on impulses to test and question them. Which is a fancy way of saying that you can honor and respect even your fiercest desires without necessarily storming off to fulfill them right that minute. You can let them settle in a bit. Get used to them. Talk about them (uh, this part is especially important in situations like mine, and may you be as pleasantly shocked as I was by the security, open-mindedness, and sheer modernity of your spouse. It’s kinda hot.)

A newly sober woman I know was struggling one night not to rush out and buy a bottle of wine or six. A mutual friend, also sober, said “Look, the alcohol will be there later if you still need it. What’s the big hurry?” That’s how I’ve started to think about inconvenient desires. Okay, fine: it’s how I’m trying to start to think about inconvenient desires: that the big ones (which, oh God, this one was) don’t just up and vanish. There’s no need for a panicked, reactive rush, because the desire will still be there when I figure out what to do about it.

“Do you feel like you could control this?” the man said during a particularly fraught post-landing conversation. “Because I have no illusions that I could control this.” Of course I can! I wanted to say. The emotions, the narrative, the damage mitigation–leave it all to me, babe, and we’ll have ourselves a harmless little fling and part as the best of friends. 

I looked into his eyes for a long time while I tried to convince myself of these things. “No,” I said finally. “I don’t think I could control this.” Which was one (utterly miserable, deeply resented) step away from reactivity and towards the rational, non-destructive, but still heartbreaking decision that had to be made. Because as he was brave enough to recognize before I did, we were no longer in fling territory. This was a letters-and-sodas situation, the kind that can ruin good lives.

I’m still too much in the middle of it to know a lot, but I do know this: there’s bound to be another inconvenient desire some day, and then another and another (assuming that life is long, e.g. I’m not suggesting a constant parade of sexual rapacity), each one carrying its own sparkle and trouble, decisions and accountabilities. Because humans have human experiences. And I have become fond, most days–though not so much lately–of being a human. The kind who gazes back, and pays attention to what she wants, because what she wants matters, too.

“Dear Dick: Did you think this was going to be pretty?” It’s not pretty. But it’s beautiful.

 

Day 1,276: Dissident

Am I a dissident now? I thought yesterday, reflecting on national events that have not exactly worked out to my liking. It’s not an everyday word, dissident–it makes me think of tanks and gulags, Vaclav Havel and Andrei Sakharov. Not me, walking around on a dignified low boil, making practical contingency plans I hope I won’t need.

And yet, it kinda fits. Present me with any role–corporate worker, woman, wife, sober person, American–and I’ll find something fundamental to take issue with, if not outright reject. And if I couldn’t find that thing to cross my arms against, I’d probably invent it, God help me. Like one of those actors who find themselves reworking lines as they speak them, I’m constitutionally unable to just play the goddamn part as written.

But I’m low-key about it–I’ve got credit in the straight world, to borrow a line. Comparing my adolescence to my sister’s, my father once said: “She would argue us into the ground over every rule and curfew. You’d just nod and then go off and do exactly what you wanted.” You’d have to be paying real attention to see me as a dissident,  and hardly anyone would watch that closely–including me, I guess, or it wouldn’t have surprised me so much to realize Yes, you’re a dissident. You always were. Now it just matters a little bit more. 

Being sober is also a small act of dissidence that feels like a bigger one these days, something writer Megan Koester absolutely nails in a scathing new essay in ViceThe whole thing is worth your time–it’s the entire reason for this post!–but here’s the line that knocked me flat:

“I know people who have been dead drunk for days, a reaction I find logical. To stay loaded is to remain in stasis, pausing the video game that is life while figuring out your next move.”

That’s exactly how I’ve been feeling–that in this first extended period of, you know, spectacular political upheaval and global uncertainty since I cleaned up my act, life has somehow insisted on marching forward even as I struggle to process it all in real time. There’s no cycle of numbing/suffering/shame to distract me from the sense that a whole lot of things seem set to blow. But there’s also no distraction from the fact that in recent weeks I’ve also cooked good meals and written and gone to the movies and bought (and worn!) killer lingerie and laughed at my younger dog’s first experience with snow and had startling moments of connection with other people. All of this is happening. All at once.

September 11, 2001 is the date I became a daily drinker. For no good reason–I lived in a peaceful college town over a thousand miles from New York,  and didn’t lose anyone in the attacks, and didn’t know anyone in the military. But I was anxious and horrified, and a giant glass of wine each day seemed like the rebellious, life-during-wartime thing to do. Why not, right? We were all going to die soon anyway.

Except here we are. And my sense now is that the truly radical life-during-wartime thing to do isn’t drinking. It’s, well, living life during wartime. At least I think that’s what a dissident would do.

Day 1,262, Part 2: Thank you.

I wrote today’s first post before going back and reading the many, many blog comments I received in the wake of “Enjoli.” I hadn’t looked at them before because for some of the reasons I talked about in my last couple of posts, I just needed to be in a quiet space for a bit.

But now I’ve read them all (and hopefully approved them all) and all I can say is THANK YOU to everyone who took the time to write. Your words made me cry, and yes, I am in public right now. (You might have warned me, people.) Especially those of you found inspiration to get sober or stick with new sobriety from my essay. My God, I can’t tell you how much that means to me. Just know it does. I hope you’re all still plugging along in (as Belle would say) your little sober car. And if you’re not but you wish you were, then just start again. You’ll be smarter and have better tools than you did last time. Never stop starting over if you need to (but also know that if you can just gut it out during the hard early days, it’ll get SO much better and you’ll never have to have a Day 1 again).

We’re all connected.

Love, Kristi