I ended my first night of drinking by throwing up at a car wash. My parents pulled the giant Chevy van over so that could I hang my stupid head out and projectile vomit red wine onto the pavement.
I had already blown our cover moments before by saying - in a stage whisper - “We are SO screwed” to my friend. I don't remember my parents saying anything judgmental. Instead, it was much worse - they didn't say much of anything, or if they did, it didn't register. This was the first of many instances where I would disappoint kind and supportive people. Alcoholics (and addicts) collect these moments and store them in a dusty box of memories that we push to the back of our brain by drinking. These embarrassments (some big, some small) get sloshed along towards the very back of our mind, where they wash up as soon as we're dry. The best way to keep them at bay is to drink as much and as often as possible, which is a great system unless you die.
The last time I drank, I woke up walking in an unfamiliar neighborhood. I say this casually but it isn't normal or cool to wake up, upright and walking, even in familiar areas. I quickly ascertained that I was bruised and sick. My phone still had some battery but I realized that I had no idea where I was. The near-dead phone revealed that I was nowhere near my apartment. I walked for about an hour until I somehow wound up back at my apartment, brushed past my angry-but-frightened boyfriend and threw up for two days straight. I couldn't hold down food. I'd torn something in my throat from vomiting, which bled when I coughed. Drinking hot tea was too painful. There were several apparentlies: I'd apparently spent a lot of money that night; I apparently had bruises all over my body and and worst of all, I had apparently embarrassed myself at a good bar!
In the past twelve years, I had pretty reliable patterns - drink like a fish four-five days a week, overdo it to the point of being sick for more than a day, lay low for a day or two, then rinse with mouth wash and repeat. Like many alcoholics, I'd found a way to mostly get away with my drinking. (Friends, family and lovers might disagree with me, there - as ever, thanks and sorry.) But since I hadn't gotten a DUI or lost a job or done any jail time, and since my blackouts had been politely spaced out in their frequency, I thought that I wasn't a Real Alcoholic. In that span of months, though, I'd had 3-4 spectacular blackouts, including throwing up on the train platform, being late or absent from events and really worrying people. I'd always been someone who drank to get drunk, but now I was drinking to the point of no return. Drinking was killing me but the idea of not drinking made me want to kill myself and if I'd ever had a handle on it, I certainly didn't now. At home, clear-eyed, alone in my room, a frightening thought crawled across my water-logged brain: you are going to die.
The definitive 12 Step book on alcohol recovery asks us to do a scary thing: admit that we are powerless over alcohol and that our lives have become unmanageable. Job-less, physically ill, in trouble with my significant other and embarrassed on a primordial level, I realized that things hadn't just suddenly gotten unmanageable. They had BEEN unmanageable, but I had used alcohol (and often drugs) to distract myself from all kinds of things in the past, ranging from actual trauma to the slight discomfort that's ever present in social situations. I was using to keep myself in an endless, comforting loop of the same, safe, bad decisions. Back in Arkansas, I'd been in comfortable territory - bars, people, even streets I knew. In Chicago, danger is ever present in the daytime, so my comedy excursions that kept me out (and hammered) well after 2 a.m. were seriously dangerous. I am purely lucky that nothing too terrible happened to me while I was a mess.
A slight digression since discussion of addiction almost always makes someone defensive: You may be able to drink normally, tab out and then drive home - or call a cab - like a good citizen. You may be even be a person who does drugs from time to time. If it's all manageable to you, power to you. I can't manage it, though. I've never been able to. I've learned from talking to other addicts, basic as it seems, that a trademark of addiction is an inability to stop once you've started. Back to the book I mentioned, here's a great passage that makes me cringe every time I read it: "We have tried every imaginable remedy. In some instances there has been brief recovery, followed always by a still worse relapse. Here are some of the methods we have tried: Drinking beer only, limiting the number of drinks, never drinking alone, never drinking in the morning, drinking only a home, never having it in the house, never drinking during business hours, drinking only at parties, switching from [hard liquor to something lighter], drinking only [wine], agreeing to resign if ever drunk on the job, taking a trip, not taking a trip, swearing off forever (with and without a solemn oath), taking more physical exercise, reading inspirational books, going to [rehab], accepting voluntary commitment [to the hospital] -- we could increase the list ad infinitum."
Once I was honest with myself (REALLY honest) in admitting that I had no idea where to begin and that the limits I had set in the past had not worked, I could begin the exhausting but ultimately wonderful process of recovery. I dragged my broken self to some meetings. I met and befriended sober people who I hang out with now still, a year later. I've devoured books on recovery. I've even met sober comedians! While I still have a long ways to go, I can say this: I no longer wake up hungover, spend egregious amounts of money, lose innumerable hours accomplishing nothing by sitting in a bar, nor do I have to constantly apologize for doing and saying things of which I have no memory. The mystery of my behavior as a drunk person is no longer something I have to devote any brain power to. Somewhere, too, I managed to land a full time job, hit career accomplishments I'd never dreamed of and have built a strong, funny network of friends in recovery who can both handle my bullshit and recognize that, by sharing my struggle, I can help them with theirs.
As I've come to learn, addicts who are far gone (as bad or worse off than I was) often have a brush with doom that frightens them into trying to quit. Some people have to relapse many times before they're scared enough to stop. Many people have that shadowy experience and then still repeat their rock bottom moments for a long time. Others do not ever attempt to recover. Last year, 88,000 people died from alcohol-related causes, making alcohol the third leading cause of preventable death in the country. Something like 66,000 people died from drug overdoses last year. Among these statistics are people I loved and miss daily. I mention these grisly statistics because if you're someone who is feeling on the verge, you should begin the exhausting process of quitting. Don't, as I did, think about quitting sometime in the future. Don't waste more time. Begin the process ASAP, friend.
Because I've been humbled so often by people asking how I got (and thus far, have stayed) sober, I started a blog to chart my progress as someone new to recovery and to illuminate some mystery (and myths) I've learned about the process. In the next post, I'll share some of my favorite resources for the newly sober, focusing on recovery from the perspective of people who managed to get sober despite working in the entertainment industry. (If you can't wait, start here.) Happy New Year.