What to Expect When You No Longer Expect Anything.
Four years of sobriety and this is what I have to show for it.
I’ve never been one for posting about my recovery journey. I’m the punk that asks my sober friends to untag me from sarcastic treatment memes because of the “what-if’s”. What if an extended member of my family sees the tag? Maybe an old coworker will connect the intricate dots and text him who tells her who tells them and so on and so forth. Pretty soon the “Yeah I thought so…” not-so-shocking truth of my addiction would spread like the Clap at a circa-2004-John Mayer party.
I always imagined that if I ever shared my addiction and subsequent recovery story outside of the rooms of AA or conversations with close friends, I’d save it for a truly important milestone—my five-year sobriety birthday. They (whoever “they” is) say that if you make it to five years, you have an increased chance at permanent sobriety. I figured, if I made it that far, why the hell not let the crunk cat out of the bag?
But something has changed over the last 12 months. Much like every other expectation in my life, I’ve come up juuuuust a bit short. That’s because I’ve made a decision to write this today. The day before I officially turn four.
In AA (at least in certain regions), we celebrate “birthdays” for each year a person in program is sober. A birthday is 365 days of continuous sobriety. No slips, no sips. The birthday person gets a chip to commemorate the occasion, and we sing “Happy Birthday,” applaud and let them make a speech telling us just how they did it. At its most basic, it’s one more way a bunch of fucked-up, self-centered addicts can eat cake and celebrate.
Last year, I didn’t put much weight behind my birthday. The world just seemed so incredibly untethered that something like an oddly timed third birthday didn’t carry the weight it should have. While the country was staggering toward the first stages of Covid lockdown and the case counter on CNN kept ticking upward, I was trying to make sense of my life. I was 36 and unemployed. Would I stay in my chosen industry? Would I give up on this “writing things for other people” crap that I clearly wasn’t great at to start putting words down, finally, for myself? Would I give up writing altogether. Would that purple Schwinn I bought in a drunken stupor continue to gather dust in my parents’ garage, brand-new tires gradually losing air?
Did I mention I live with my parents?
I’ll get to that later. For now, let’s get back on track.
My fourth birthday.
Four years without a drink.
I’m not a mathematician or anything, but that’s (365 days x 4) + 1 Leap Year Day, which is… however the hell many days that is.
FOUR FUCKING YEARS without the warm whiff of alcohol on my breath. Over 35,000 hours of not waking up with the worst headache any human has ever had, only to do it all over again the next morning even worse than the morning before. Four years of not plotting when I would sneak over to a liquor store, or trying to decide which one, to pick up the necessary amount of discount, 80-proof, five-times distilled (because maybe it’s easier on your liver?) UV Vodka to make it through the night.
Spoiler alert: It never did.
Even now, four years later, the effects linger on my mind. Hangover flashbacks happen in the form of sinus headaches that make it difficult to stand up. Every few weeks, a relapse dream sneaks into my subsconcsious. In the few short seconds after I open my eyes, I have to take stock of my surroundings, peek around the room, focus and remind myself that I’m still sober. It’s not so much a nightmare as it is the unsettling feeling that I did something I can’t remember doing.
Maybe that’s worse.
This isn’t to say that I don’t love alcohol. I do. Or that I’m not jealous of non-alcoholics. I am. The rising burn from a shot down the throat. The loose buzz that sets in after six drinks (I’m an alcoholic damnit, of course it takes a lot). Some poor bastards were just born to drink. And I am one of the millions that have walked this earth.
I descend from a long proud lineage of broke, violent, angry fall-down drunks. The earliest memories I have that managed to survive a solid 10-plus years of constant pickling aren’t happy ones. They’re of alcohol-fueled fights. Shouting and punching walls in perfect time to Van Halen’s “Running With the Devil.” Waking up at 1 am to the sound of my parents cursing at each other or the wailing sounds of my father’s terrible voice singing “Oh, Sherry” at the top of his lungs. Me not falling back to sleep until half an hour before I had to wake up for school. My mother crying. My father on his knees in the courtyard of our apartment building getting handcuffed.
The eighties and nineties. What a time to be alive.
As I grew up, I swore I would never become an alcoholic. Because I had a choice, of course. Alcoholism and addiction were misery. Poverty. Waste. Shame. The root of everything that plagued my life. The trouble in my parents’ marriage. The cause of my grandfather’s terminal cancer. The reason male relatives were in and out of jail. And the driving force behind my childhood depression. If only my dad didn’t drink, we’d all be happier. I’d feel normal. Just like everyone else. That’s what I expected anyway.
Alcoholics are a funny bunch. We love to feel different from others, but torture ourselves because we’re not like everyone else. We’re chronically selfish, endlessly worrisome and quick to jump to conclusions. We live in a constant state of fear. We’re perpetually controlling, and have faith in no one, not even ourselves. We’re perfectionists and we’re totally fucking nuts. Now that might not be the proper scientific term, but as our AA literature maintains, how else would you describe doing the same thing over and over again, each time expecting a different outcome? Alcoholics, addicts, whatever you want to call us, consistently make poor decisions that affect how we think and what we do, long before we start drinking or using.
I’m not going to get into the drunkalog of having my first drink, how I felt or what I did. It likely wasn’t that much different from anyone else’s experience. In fact, it was like any other experience. I discovered alcohol. It made me feel strong, hopeful, fearless and free. I expected so much from it.
But what I got were really stupid, dangerous things. The more I drank the more I fucked up. I blathered on with absolute nonsense endlessly, forcing people to listen to whatever I was rambling. I made an ass of myself and pushed close friends away forever. I showed up everywhere and anywhere drunk. I lost my license, my apartment, my confidence, what little was left of my sanity and control. And I contiuned that way for years and years and years and years.
But it wasn’t just drinking. It was not drinking, that tortured me, too.
Quitting on your own is one of the most anxiety-inducing, panic-fueling, sky-is-literally-fucking-falling experiences you can ever have, and I would recommend it to absolutely no one. Withdrawal sets in. Your hands tremble. Writing your signature is a battle with your own nervous system. Suspicion and fear of people runs high, and you’re 100 percent certain everyone can read the truth on your face. I tried to stop countless times before; one week here, two or three there. I even went to an addiction therapist for over a year who would pull out wrinkled calendar printouts and place neon stars on each day I didn’t drink. We only made it past 30 days once. And I’m pretty sure I lied at that.
Knowing I was an alcoholic but being unable to say it aloud to anyone was the worst part. I even attended AA meetings (not by choice) for four months before I got sober. I was okay admitting I was an alcoholic to the people in the rooms—that was easy. But beautiful moments of truth only last the short seconds it takes to reach down for a water bottle full of straight vodka while some recovered asshole reads the 12 Steps.
About a month before I got sober, I was prepping myself for a friend’s wedding. I had made it through another attempt at a week without drinking and told myself I could keep the dry spell going. Dry is the correct word, in that I had nothing to fall back on. No structure. No power. I was still me, just sans alcohol. With no chance of success, I entered the arena. I didn’t even make it to the toast. Not even close.
I didn’t remember this until about three months into my recovery, but it often comes back to me now. At one of the first meetings I attended after the wedding, someone took me aside and asked how I was doing. He was an older man with decades of recovery, one of the pillars of the meeting. He still is. And I look up to him, more so now than ever. He was trying to reach out and my alcoholic brain had no idea how to handle it.
Another wonderful gift of addiction is crippling, self-imposed isolation and an inability to respond normally to social cues or look people in the eye. It’s hard to hold a stable conversation and keep cool when your BAC is a rising .28. Imagine trying to speak to a stranger about the one thing that literally has held you hostage for years that you can’t live without.
I started to cry. Somewhere in between the tears you shed when you see the dog freezing in the ASPCA Sarah McLachlan commercials at 2 am and the ones you cry when you’re three sheets to the wind, pretending to be Judy Garland alone in your apartment. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, be thankful for that. I hope you never do.
But back to my friend at the meeting. The one trying to help by just trying to get me to be honest. Even then, I could only tell half-truths. I made excuses knowing damn well I would have rather had a drink at that moment than sit there and talk about whether I wanted to stop. And he saw right through every bit of it. You don’t get as many years of sobriety as he has without being able to spot a real one from a mile away. Without pause and as sure as he was that I was sitting there, he said plainly in the most supportive tone, “You’re not ready.”
Who the hell was he to say that? I probably thought… the problem was that he was right.
I wasn’t ready one month before I got sober. I wasn’t ready one minute before I got sober. Sometimes I regret that it didn’t happen years before. Then I snap out of it and accept in that moment that it happened when it did, simple as that. Who the hell am I to question something that actually worked?
I don’t know what planets were aligned the day I had a fleeting moment of clarity (TBH, I was still drunk when I had it, so not sure how clear it was), but after a particularly traumatic experience, I made the decision, purely on a whim and solely to protect my job, to enter rehab. Not before preceeding my triumphant entrance with four straight days of non-stop power drinking. I blew a .32 the day I arrived. Then I went to the backyard and tried to play basketball.
Didn’t make a single shot.
When it was all said and done, my drinking career ended as pathetically as it lived. My very last sip of alcohol was a super classy concoction of about 10-percent Vitamin Water/ 90-percent vodka from a plastic bottle I threw on the ground outside the gate before entering my treatment center.
It was Saturday, March 4, 2017. I arrived five hours after I said I’d check in.
I’m remembering a lot about that day tonight. The last hour before my birthday. I think the reason for it is that I couldn’t control when or how I quit drinking, any more than I can control what happens in my life today. Four years, five years. What difference does it make? Back then, I didn’t know how I would stay sober. Now I sometimes forget I ever drank.
Year three of sobriety was nothing that I expected. I know now that expectations are fruitless, even crushing, but that doesn’t stop us from having them. 2020 was the year families lost loved ones to a pandemic that raged unnecessarily. Unrest and frustration boiled over in response to injustice and insecurity. Division grew and hatred made news even more than Covid some days.
I didn’t work for nine months. I questioned my future. I pulled my hair out more than ever. Literally. I pull my damn hair out. It’s anxiety that manifests itself in OCD and I’ve done it since age seven. I experienced multiple bipolar episodes of depression, but thankfully none as intense as those in my past. I slept on my parent’s couch for absolutely no reason for a month. I threw myself into the first job I landed at the end of September and lost any semblance of free time for the remainder of the year.
I say this not to make the trek to year four sound like some huge accomplishment. I’m luckier than I deserve to be here. I didn’t have to balance Zoom school with client meetings. I wasn’t forced to catch the bus for a job that pays less than minimum wage. I wasn’t essential to your livelihood and I didn’t experience death firsthand.
I’m just your boring, average Millennial Latina who just happens to be sober. The one who doesn’t drink during Zoom happy hour. Who rips the tab off an energy drink during lunch while someone says, “You cracking open a 40?” everytime I do. People eat edibles in front of me, make wine jokes and drunk jokes and weed jokes and I smile all the while knowing how unfunny addiction is while everyone laughs. It’s not my place to judge others nor does it make sense for anyone to change their character for my comfort. I have to remind myself that not everyone is an addict. In those cases, it’s ain’t them, but there’s no question it’s me.
I’m sharing this now because getting sober is probably the second hardest thing I’ve ever done, outside of surviving the first half of my life. It’s almost impossible for some, even during “normal” times. I can’t imagine the fear and uncertainty of someone trying to put a week of sobriety together when the world is falling apart. While everyone else is hitting Bev-Mo for cases of White Claw, some poor souls are using their last dollar for a hit or sip outside of a 7–11, simply because they believe they can’t live without. If you are struggling with addiction, or depression, or fear and hopelessness, I only want you to know that I did, too. And I felt alone and ashamed for a long time, just like you probably feel. Sometimes the best support you can give someone is the knowledge that you’ve been where they are. I hope you’re ready sooner rather than later.
I had no control over when I got sober, but I do have the power to choose when I share my story in a public forum. Four years is on the horizon. Five years isn’t promised. I could relapse tomorrow. I could die later today. But at least I can say I lived four uninterrupted years with a steady-ish grasp on reality. That’s four more years than I ever had before.
I’m not a glowing model of sobriety. I don’t attend meetings every day. I forget to call my sponsor for major life decisions, and I fail to follow every suggestion of my chosen program. I know everyone has their own path. For some, it’s an unfailing dedication to spiritual progress that prevents them from relapse. For others, it’s no program at all.
Am I where I thought I’d be four years into recovery? Absolutely not. I fall into self-pity and doubt. I lash out. When I feel myself losing it, I try to reflect on what I’ve learned. About my own mental illness and addiction. The long-term effects and how they display themselves, not just in me but those around me. I’m grateful I found recovery. I don’t know if any among that long line of alcoholics I come from ever did.
The parents who couldn’t make their marriage work? Yup, I live with those nutjobs. My immature roommates. We spent 2020 confined in an old, drafty two-bedroom with no privacy. When I feel resentful of where I’m at, I try to pause. With no other escape during quarantine, I started hiking and I love it. I’ve never been athletic. Not because I don’t have athletic ability, but because I just figured that if I couldn’t be the best at a sport, why bother? What did I say earlier, drunks are perfectionists. We keep ourselves from doing things all the time.
Kind of like how I expected to not share my recovery openly until year five. Rather than wait another year, I’m making the decision to move forward now. When I try to pinpoint the most important thing I’ve learned in four years of not drinking—aside from expectations are bullshit—it’s that nothing is permanent. Nothing except my disease. I will always be an alcoholic but that doesn’t condemn me to a life endless, agonizing addiction. Every hurtful, soul-crushing event has been the result of unrealized expectations. I expected too much from people and too much or too little of myself. Almost nothing I ever I hoped for turned out the way I wanted. Things that I felt, dreams I had and fears I held, have all changed.
Funny enough, year four is now here. It trickled in as I wrote this. True to form, even my expectation of posting this the day before my birthday didn’t pan out. Four years is now. Having said that… and given the epic shittiness of 2020… it’s felt like two bad years in one. Hypothetically, that’s like I’m at year five anyway??
Leave it to an alcoholic to try to make that logic work.
If you, or a family member, needs help with a mental or substance use disorder, call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1–800–662-HELP (4357) or TTY: 1–800–487–4889, or use SAMHSA’s Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator to get help.