Sobriety Notes

On & off & on & off the wagon

[David’s Backporch, Shannon Cartier Lucy, 2019]

This week I will be going to three parties—or rather, I’ve been to two and one is left. This is a big deal as it’s been nearly three years since I have been to a party because, well, I have been ill. I’ve also been sober for three years. But I’ve already had two drinks this week, one at each party, so now I average two drinks in three years. But, the thing is, I might drink again this week. And maybe again next week.

Chronic illness had made me embrace sobriety. So had dating people in AA. I came to find alcohol a big problem and then it just felt unthinkable to be drunk or even tipsy. Then a week ago I stopped taking Klonopin—my long wean came to an end. I realized the last year or so of Klonopin use had strengthened my sobriety as benzos and alcohol are never a good mix. But was that the main reason? I was surprised at myself as I had two mixed drinks, each of which made me feel a bit of a hangover the next day. What was the point? Did I like drinking? Again?

For years, I was a beer bro—craft beer had become an honest-to-god hobby of mine. And before that I was a bar columnist in my 20s. Alcohol was a big part of my life for much of my life. My grandfather who lived well into his 90s drank very heavily, even through six heart attacks. Like me he also loved to smoke (I haven’t smoked in three years and that one I will not return to). He loved to encourage us to party. Whiskey was always at his side. 

I used to joke that vanity prevented me from being an alcoholic. I never wanted that puffy red face I saw in white people all around me. I never wanted the black outs of my youth, the times I’d wake up in a cab with a fist full of dollars and smelling like someone else’s vomit. I never wanted to make those mistakes. I had stopped identifying as a mess long ago.

But wasn’t it in 2014 when in London I went right back from the stray hot toddies to straight up Jamison’s plus some other substances til dawn. I was back in the Primrose Hill pubs of my youth, when I was on my year abroad in the UK, and here I was back to being messy in my 30s. My boyfriend at the time looked a decade or two older than he was purely from drinking and smoking. I don’t think we had a sober moment together. When I took a plane to Stockholm on that trip to see my dying grandmother, I wondered if the weird jittery feeling I felt was withdrawal. I went back to drinking in Stockholm. And then again in London. And then back in New York. I had already been chronically ill for years but I was drinking like someone who could afford to.

And so I wondered about this week. At the Paris Review party I smiled hazily into a sea of too many drunk young people, all pretty and wry and ready for anything, it seemed. At the Housing Works Christmas party, I drank because no one was there and it seemed to fill a void. I knew these feelings well: too much, not enough. And I woke up both these days feeling the familiar feeling: my brain like a crispy husk reeling a bit, all the things that presented themselves as mattering before I fell asleep now nonsensical half-memories.

How to be on and off the wagon, over and over and over again. My relationship to drinking feels unknown and yet nothing new. But this feeling seems an honest one and one that also seems to mirror my feelings in regards to illness. I am neither in one state or another. I am somehow floating, but just barely. In any case, the biggest dangers seem impossible.

I think the difference now, from 20 years ago is that I no longer hate myself. I loved myself enough to fight hard for my survival these past years. I can’t dispose of myself like that. Alcohol for once is not a metaphor. It is just a beverage. 

And somehow this is huge to me.

I always hated how AA insists we are addicts for life, but just maybe they had a point.

In a little over a month I turn 42. Because I’ve missed my last two birthdays due to illness, I plan on celebrating heartily. I don’t know what that means anymore though. Drinks and cake? A late night? Friends, a fling? Who knows. I don’t know where my sobriety will be. I don’t know what to make of it, what friends and family will, what my doctors would even advise. I remember my first Lyme doctor signing off on me having a beer once my inflammation markers were down. I went to the Compound, an old classy 60s joint in Santa Fe, and sipped at a Manhattan instead. The buzz nearly did me in but I also loved it. It felt like health, being able to afford to sacrifice health. But I guess today I don’t see the sacrifice, or the affording. A drink is maybe just a drink. Life, just life. We are always in the middle of figuring it all out, one of the only truths, I’ve come to realize. 

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