Being a sober alcoholic in New York City is something like being in a foreign country where everyone loves a sport you can’t even play. Or being a diabetic in a sugar factory. Or being lactose intolerant on a dairy farm.
I totally had forewarning that it was going to get out of hand – I have a family history of alcoholics and addicts who’d either died of the disease or gotten themselves sober in an act of self-preservation. But I was excited by drinking. It made things easier, parties bearable, me more comfortable.
Blackouts*, vomiting, embarrassing public behavior, drinking until I passed out, and hangovers that would have put most people off the sauce for a month barely made me pause until the next week. I’d promise to stop, but 10 minutes into watching all my friends drink I’d decide to have “just one” and halfway through the horrible blended whateveritwas, something would click in my head. I’d think Just screw it, and I was gone.
A sexual assault during a blackout in the fall of 2006 and a diagnosis of mono made me vow to quit for a whole year “and then I’ll be the kind of person who drank only in restaurants.” My doctor ordered me to abstain from drinking or risk my liver shutting down. The assault led me to seek counseling, which led me to an alcohol treatment specialist, who eventually, slowly, painstakingly, led me to sobriety and the community that has helped me stay here.
The assault itself and the next three months it took me to really hit bottom and admit that my drinking was out of control are a post unto themselves, so to cut straight to it: My first sober day was February 5, 2007. I was 21. That morning I pulled myself off the bathroom floor, looked in the mirror and said “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
It wasn’t easy – I stopped seeing my hard-drinking friends, avoided the wine and beer aisles in the grocery store and hung out with young sober people in my little college town. Some days I was quiet and withdrawn, others I was angry and frustrated. I would take long drives in the country, then be reduced to tears by “La Boheme” on the radio, and by evening I’d be so restless I’d go to the drug store for a coloring book and crayons. I couldn’t sleep, and when I did I had nightmares. My roommate slept on the floor of my bedroom once or twice, and when she was out of town I called 24 hour hotlines to ask questions about whether I was “allowed” to consider what happened to me sexual assault, and would I ever have sex again without hating every part of it? (Yes, and hell yes)
Gradually, as I got involved with the local sober community and followed their suggestions, my head got quieter. Decisions got easier. I got farther from a drink and started to develop a sense of humor about my disease. When I had to leave that town and move home after graduation, I cried not for the four years of college life I’d spent there, but for the four months of sober time.
Living in New York can be tricky – on the one hand, there are tons of sober young people, sober dances, and diners. On the other hand, there are work functions with champagne, marinades made with wine and a bar culture you can’t escape. I love baseball games like I love hot chocolate, but I’ve had to leave early more than once when the fans around me were too drunk or the stench of spilled beer was too much.
I spend most of my first dates on eggshells because I always feel like if I come off the slightest bit judgy or prim about alcohol, I’m dunzo. So I tend say something light like “Oh, I used up all my drink tickets so now I just drink soda.” How a guy takes that bit of news tells me a lot about him, and through trial and error I’ve learned I’m never going to be able to date someone who drinks super heavily; I once woke up with a hangover from kissing someone with liquor on their breath (for anybody who watched this season of “Mad Men”: when alcoholic Duck said to Peggy that he could taste the booze on her breath, I shuddered).
I moved to Brooklyn last June to live with a good friend and her other roommate, who freaked the eff out when I told her I was in recovery and would appreciate some notice about parties, a non-excessive amount of booze in the fridge, etc. To her ears, “recovering alcoholic” conjured up visions of a heroin-shooting junkie passed out in the living room floor. We never quite got along, astonishingly, and when I eventually discovered she’d been blogging entries like “my roommate wants her unemployed alcoholic friend to live with us!!” …..it was unpleasant.
I came away from that experience seriously burnt – basically my policy now is Don’t Tell, Deflect With a Joke. I’d never experienced the negative stigma associated with being an alcoholic until then – most people in my life have been encouraging of my sobriety and told me they were proud of me (except for the occasional skeevy guy who heard “Yeah, I used to drink but I don’t anymore” and immediately went to “So were you, like, a Girl Gone Wild or something?” Yes, yes I was, and I’ve almost managed to kick the habit of flashing my boobs to strangers – wanna see? (/sarcasm).
When I first moved to New York, some neighborhoods felt familiar but I couldn’t really remember being there except in a hazy, confused way. Then eventually I’d figure out that I’d stumbled down those subway stairs on my way to get sick in that trash can, or wiped out stepping off that curb. Ah memories. Most of the time it was like going back to the ballroom the morning after the prom and realizing that what you thought was a shimmering wonderland of lights and noise and joie de vivre was an ordinary place, with cracks in the sidewalk and sticky stains on the counter and dirty bathroom stalls in the back.
One particular bar on the Upper West Side was where part of my sexual assault occurred (the rest of it was in a friend’s apartment up the street). I must have walked by the bar a dozen times in the past two years but a few weeks ago I was walking up Broadway when my chest seized up and my throat closed and my heart pounded as I experienced a flood of incoherent memories and physical sensations that made me want to throw up. The bar wasn’t even there anymore, but something about the street that day triggered a PTSD response I haven’t felt before or since. It sucked.
I was on my way to a rehearsal, so I didn’t have time to fall apart. Instead, I took a walk around the block, breathed in the sunset over the Hudson, had a quick conversation with the universe that looks after me, and the moment passed.
Slowly but surely, I’ve grown into the person I was supposed to be before I derailed into three years of choosing an easier, less challenging, less-likely-to-interfere-with-my-drinking path. This summer I will have been sober as long as I was drinking. That kind of symmetry almost makes it feel like it never happened, like I have a clean slate (except for the crazybrain interludes that remind me to stay connected to other sober alcoholics).
I’m grateful for the chance to get sober so early in my life – some “veteran drinkers” teased me at first, but I’ve never met anyone who knew they had a problem in their twenties and was glad they kept drinking into their forties. I’m grateful for all the strong sober women who reached out to me when I was raw, tender and scared. And I’m grateful for the online world of independent, awesomesauce women and feminist allies, including the Harpies and their readership – the internet would be a lesser place without you.
If you’re curious about drinking and women, AA and its alternatives or signs of alcohol abuse, I recommend:
Drinking, a Love Story by Caroline Knapp
Happy Hours: Alcohol in a Woman’s Life by Devon Jersild
And there’s lots of helpful info here.
*PSA: Blackouts are different than passing out; when you pass out, you appear to be asleep but your body isn’t actually getting rest. People in a blackout usually appear drunk but are moving around and speaking – their brain simply isn’t forming any new memories. For me it was like walking around under a strobe light where I lost time when it went dark, anywhere from a minute to several hours.