This Is What an Addict Looks Like
* This essay originally appeared at IntheNola, a badass online magazine about all the good in New Orleans
Like all good alcoholics, I found my way to sobriety reluctantly. In my first recovery meeting, I looked around the room and scoffed at the losers on metal fold-out chairs around me. I didn’t belong there. I was convinced I didn’t really have a problem, not like they did.
I thought of my youth as rightfully wasted on one long party. Unashamed and full-throttle rebellious, I was proud of my toughness. I challenged boys to drinking games and won. I whipped bottles through the air and revelled in a life lived so close to its gleaming edge. Regret did not come easily to me.
Still, I wanted more out of life. Eventually I crawled back to college after dropping out a few years earlier to have more time for cocaine. My husband and I moved to a new town, untethering ourselves from easy access to hard drugs. I worked a bank job and took classes, but I still drank every weekend and once or twice during the week.
Do you know the way big dreams plant inside you, take root, but start to rot if you don’t make space for them to flourish? I’d wanted to write since I’d pasted paper shopping bags together to make my own books as a child. The rituals of drinking fed my fears, and I almost gave in to family pressure. We didn’t go to college to be precious artists. We got jobs. We kept the electric on and bellies full; we didn’t express ourselves.
Somehow, I worked up the courage to apply to graduate schools, and I moved to New Orleans. In grad school, I found like-minded heavy drinkers, book lovers, and writers. I leapt into some of the happiest times of my life. I wrote daily, published, and dissected books I loved with smart people who valued my writing. And, of course, I drank.
Lost Time, Lost Self
Drinking took up a lot of my time, my hangovers spanning 2-3 days. I’d anxiously await Friday nights when I could buy a pack of cigarettes and enough beer to get drunk. Saturdays I spent in bed, usually bingeing on Netflix, my head thrumming like a pipe organ in church. By Sunday I could function, but I fretted over my boasts and disclosures, always certain I’d ruined a friendship. On Monday, I went back to work.
I didn’t hit rock bottom to quit. I never got a DUI. I never went to jail. I didn’t lose my husband--how he put with me for 17 years, I’ll never know. I didn’t lose jobs, loved ones, not even a finger in an ill-fated power tools incident.
But by my 30s, I started to see real Truth: alcohol disconnected me from my center and stole any authenticity I had to offer. I made myself agreeable to experience connection. I bragged while drunk about my accomplishments to make up for never feeling like I was enough. These things compressed inside me to give birth to a shadow self of shame.
Stinky Old Drunks
We share a cultural image of the neighborhood drunk sitting on a crate at the corner store, a tall boy in a paper bag. It’s 9 a.m. and Mr. Lloyd is already slurring his words. We understand he needs help. But for people like me who are no different than Mr. Lloyd, that stereotype allows us to postpone seeking help. We let ourselves look around a recovery room and see how different we are. How not an alcohol or addict we are.
I still struggle with this. Despite everything I’ve just admitted, the hardest part for me was not seeking help, but maintaining the belief that I need it. After 2 years of sobriety, I experimented with drinking again last March. Surely I was better. Surely I had things under control.
Nothing bad happened. I had the world’s most boring relapse. I drank wine with dinner. I had some sangria on a friend’s porch, champagne at a wedding. But a different part of me had woken up. It wanted to know if there would more alcohol. If so how much? Would we get cigarettes? How about the bar after we left our friend’s house--a secret, of course--so we’d have to lie to the husband about where we’d been and how much we’d drunk.
The Bottom is Where You Stop
On the last night I drank (for the second time), I found myself in a long line at a Shell station. The man in front of me was buying a tall boy. The man behind me had a case of Miller Light. We all stunk of sour liquor. I was enjoying a frenetic buzz that hummed like the fluorescent lights. I got my cigarettes and went home to smoke on my porch. I was drunk, I realized, which meant I’d driven my car over the legal limit.
There I was again. Acting on autopilot, my lizard brain gleefully reveling in its addictions. I could see where I’d be in six months, a year, addiction progressive in the havoc it wreaks on a life.
They call me a high-bottom alcoholic. The high bottom is a blessing and a curse. I kept my outward life mostly in tact. My consequences occurred internally: depression, anxiety, and self-hatred. Sometimes I wish I had sought help earlier, in my twenties, when it was obvious to everyone but me that I was out of control. But this is the value of sharing our stories. The moment I heard the story of a fellow addict who’d kept her job, family, and the respect of her community, I hugged her for telling me I was normal. Rock bottom is relative. The sooner we find it, the better off we are.