How Do I Tell My Story of Getting Sober?

Photo credit: Joelle Sedlmeyer - Getty Images

Photo credit: Joelle Sedlmeyer – Getty Images

They say the insomnia will end when the withdrawals end, but that’s just a lie they tell you so you won’t pick up, something to hold onto if “Don’t quit before the miracle happens” doesn’t persuade you to hold on for one more day. Early on, I tried the late-night meetings at the strip mall clubhouse with low lights and syrup-smelling vape clouds hanging near the ceiling like weather, but all those men and their court orders made me want to drink worse. My home was no place for a soul’s convalescence—the Crown Royal bottle was still in its velvet bag, sleeping while I couldn’t.

In the evenings, I was fine, because for the first few months, I spent evenings in meetings. I don’t remember what I said or heard, but I remember landmarks of the world I’d rebirthed myself into, like the light switch I felt for in the bathroom, and the heft of the folding chairs I stacked. I was days old, then weeks old, growing up in church basements where my dry family left no trace—not coffee rings on tables, not stray pamphlets, not the soul rot that could soak into upholstery if we let it linger in the air too long.

The 24-hour restaurants, though: My mind built dioramas of interiors, mapped them, snapshotted the doors that open and open and open inside me. I do not live in that city anymore. I don’t go to meetings or the late dinners afterward, and I don’t drive around alone at night, looking for somewhere to pass the time while getting tired. But I remember the towering plush booths of 13 Coins, Lost Lake’s beacon of teal neon, North Star’s constellation tabletops. Once you get sober, you become fully aware in every waking moment, and without the generous erasure of the blackout, you meet a million details demanding to be stored.

For nearly six years now, I’ve been trying to sort all these heavy minutes, and I’ll never get through the backlog that trails behind me and nags that I’ve missed something. I’ve averaged five and a half hours of sleep a night since that spring when I finished my drinking. Maybe I drank because I wanted to sleep—this is one of those things I tell myself when I’m trying to make a story of it. In truth, I remember why I drank. It never stays out of my head long. I remember the first red Solo cup and the self-breaking power of Everclear and Kool-Aid washing through me, back when my liver was still new enough to meet the liquor like a date with a man you don’t yet know you’ll fear.

Then, in the restaurant of my memory, the lights go out.

In early 2015, I bought my first tarot deck after my friend read my cards and turned up the Three of Swords, the stabbed heart. I wanted to know about a man. I read my own cards every day for practice. By April, all my messages about love and death evaporated, and one card made itself known to me every day: the Four of Cups. A person sits under a tree, arms crossed, turning away from a floating hand that offers a cup.

By the end, I wasn’t drinking very much most nights. I’d split a 12-ounce bottle of cider between two jelly jars, one for drinking, the other for saving in the fridge for tomorrow. No more passing out on the bathroom floor with an empty belly and the spins. Only occasional brownouts, or maybe blackouts, but I wouldn’t know. Mostly, I made the jelly jar my emblem of restraint.

I was not ready for the withdrawals. They weren’t severe enough to bring on seizures or DTs, but I couldn’t pretend I wasn’t going through a physical disturbance resulting from a profound change. I don’t remember how it felt, only how expansive the night became as my phone and I lay in bed, and I looked through the first names of women who told me to call them if I wanted to drink. I couldn’t recall most of their faces or where we met, so I didn’t call. Besides, I didn’t want to drink. There was nothing to talk me out of or through. I wanted to sleep.

For a decade, half of which I spent with a young brain that hadn’t fully set, I drank heavily and often. When people say alcohol is a depressant, they’re referring to the fact that it depresses, or slows down, the central nervous system. Over time, cognition and memory suffer. When alcohol is taken away, its inhibitory effects go with it, and the central nervous system is left jacked up.

Enough time has passed that my face, once a welt-dappled and grayish banner announcing my toxic body, skipped back in time to find the moonglow it lost in my first apartment. I look healthy, but I can’t sleep. My heart races with no apparent cause. My stomach weeps acid. My severe working memory deficit makes me forget my friends’ names; I am smoothed like an egg, losing everything I haven’t written down. My brain says it can stay up all night. It says we can just do more things to make up for what we keep losing. I was shaped by alcohol; it will always be my center.

At meetings, we were supposed to speak to the other drunks in a general way about what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now. What happened is a memory hole where narrative drowned. What it was like—what what was like? I could talk about the bathroom floor and the jelly jar but not what got me there, not in rooms full of men. It didn’t matter. I could make a narrative true without making that truth precise. It was not untrue that I was born wanting, or that I wanted to change the way I felt, or that I believed in no power greater than myself.

The story of my drinking I shared at meetings was plot driven and shaped around relatable details. The story was as vacant as a church basement at night, decorated with one silk plant, and ready to be filled with whoever showed up. I tidied my mess around narrative beats: First it was fun, then it was bad, then I knew that, then I really knew it, then I quit, and it’s still hard, but I’m here. Meanwhile, my uninebriated brain began putting together a private narrative that could be as long as I needed. Without an audience, it could resist the easy clasping of cause and consequence, and the visceral pleasure of the arc. I had to stop grasping for the closest source of narrative menace I could find—myself, the dipsomaniac—and enter a space where there was no tension to be modulated, no structure to guide me toward a triumphant resolution. I had to understand why I needed alcohol so I’d never go back there looking for something I’d lost.

A few months before quitting, I had, as they say, pulled a geographic. I left a moldy place in Seattle for a not-yet-moldy place north of the city. I could start fresh in an apartment where I’d never vomited, miles from the bars. My Seattle apartment was behind a block of five of them. I liked them all, but most nights after work, I showed up at the dim tavern that had pull tabs and pool tables. Being a regular meant taking my place at the bar over and over, having a pint of Manny’s set down in front of me before I asked, like in a movie, and I could have as many as I wanted, because the beer was as infinite as God.

My years there are one long night inside me: that night I saw the man from the reality show who I’d met before at another dive the night I got roofied, couldn’t get away from the heiress who stroked my hair and rode her bicycle home to get an unfinished Coast Salish cedar mask she wanted to show me, smoked cigarettes in a ball gown I was wearing from the gala I came from, traded cigarettes for doughnuts from the baker next door, ate chips, drank beer, drank whiskey, passed out on the bathroom floor. I have some anecdotes, illustrations with plots, but no meaning. Strung together, they show the chaos I was cataloguing long before I was ready to tell its story.

One day, I had my last whiskey and never had one again. I never went back to the bar where I drank it, but there’s a dollhouse in my brain where I am still on the barstool, deciding I’ll find my way back to my car in the morning and taxi home tonight. There is too much happening in my brain for sleep. I’m in a hospital cafeteria for a Sunday meeting, looking at the evergreens through gargantuan panes of institutional glass, three weeks sober and not ready to talk about what it was like but confident enough to say there is no God, but there are spirits everywhere, and hardly any of them love us. I’m in the gymnasium where the old-timers, who got sober before I was born, talk about their home repairs. I’m in a basement after dark, in a neighborhood I can’t recall, at a meeting I’ll never return to, where a guy with a decade sober stands with his soul billowing like a preacher’s and says he’ll probably die drunk. I’m in the yacht club for the sunrise meeting. I remember nothing but the window and the messy surface of the lake, a view I thought was going to feel profound.

It’s been a couple years since I’ve returned to the meetings that saved my life by offering me a narrative form to hold my shapeless despair. I stretched the time loops of my drinking and quitting onto a structure that gave my life meaning by making my failures into story. Hitting bottom became a plot point, and my history was a chain of cause and effect leading to it. Meetings gave me that vehicle for meaning. But once I let the plot sprawl, I couldn’t bring it back there.

I drank, because doctors can’t cure what’s wrong with me; they can’t even keep me comfortable, because this pain is not from sickness—it’s from knowing that men want to hurt me. Soon after the first one got inside me, I began to drink. Alcohol mashed a button in my hypothalamus that made my adrenals light up. The alcoholic’s high cortisol will drop back to normal within three months, but I still can’t sleep. My heart is still overclocked, and my brain idles high. I suspect that those nights I spent diving toward last call didn’t bring on the insomnia—I think alcohol was the only tool I had to shutter the memory palace in my head, where all the hallways led to rooms where I was on my back, pressed against a bed or a couch or a floor, suffering.

This is a less of a memory and more of a figment, but I see myself at a diner table, three days sober and unsure about how I’ll go on. I have a glass of grapefruit juice and a plate of hash browns and eggs. My gut knows something I don’t, and it has asked for food. The miracle is that part of you gets to die, like you always wanted before, but part of you gets to live, like you didn’t plan for. I began to understand hunger as a kind of faith, the demand for fuel to keep going. It’s so easy to mistake it for thirst or for anger, but it’s the first thing that comes back, glowing in you like neon, saying to you like neon says, “Here we are, open.”

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