When I was a kid, I would watch a movie or TV series and see characters (men and women) in incredibly abusive relationships. People who’d be beaten or ridiculed and told they’re worthless. And I couldn’t empathize because I kept thinking, “Why don’t they just leave?” Time and again, the victim returns to their abuser. I didn’t get it… until I recognized I was an alcoholic, and realized I had the same problem.
My substance was my abuser and even after I recognized it, I couldn’t stop. I kept going back to it again and again. In short, now I get it.
I honestly couldn’t tell you when my problem began. My family was – or is – one of those, “I’d rather have you drink at home,” and to be fair, I’m not going to knock that concept, because if it wasn’t in place, I might’ve met an early grave. That said, when you don’t know your kid is predisposed to addiction, it’s biting off a lot more than you can chew. I remember drinking with my family during movie nights, but somewhere, I think – or at the very least, I rationalized – that I wanted to drink alone. I felt self conscious around my family. My mother mentioned something about me getting “twitchy feet” when I was drinking, so I stopped drinking with them. I mean, that’s not true. I’d have a glass of wine or two, but I’d keep drinking alone in my room. I was always the one getting up getting people refills. I thought I was so clever.
Things got worse in high school when I switched to vodka. I remember thinking I was clever then too. I’d carry around one of those travel mugs and dangle the tag of a tea bag on the outside so everyone would assume “tea” was on the inside… but of course it was filled with vodka. Much of high school is a blur. My grades were atrocious; my attendance (both mentally and physically) left much to be desired. I don’t know how, but somehow, I got accepted to a four year university and the dark side of myself was given free reign. I remember almost nothing about my first (and only) semester at that college, aside from one night when I woke up in a hospital.
I find that piecing together a blackout is a lot like a dream where one minute, you’re driving with a handful of people and the next you’re parked on the 34th floor of an office building. Apparently, I was out on a walk with some friends and eventually had to pee. Evidently my aim was off because my stream ended up soaking my feet. I laid down in the dirt and apparently some police officers approached me asking if I was okay. According to my friends, I told them I was fine and was deeply sorry I worried them. Apparently I repeatedly apologized for worrying them. I was very distressed about it and confided that I knew they probably stumble upon this type of situation and it’s not nearly so amenable. I didn’t mean to make them think I was unconscious or ruining their night. It sounded like they knew I was drunk but saw that my friends were going to get me home safe. Along the way back to the dorms, I got in an altercation – which of course is PC sober speak for a drunken fist fight. Apparently someone was making playful jabs at one of my friends – they overslept for an exam or something – and I took this personally, so of course I took a swing. To the other guy’s credit, he did not punch back. In fact, it wasn’t until I took my piss soaked sock off and started whipping it at him that he started to grapple. He tossed me around a bit, but apparently, it was one of his friends who grabbed my legs from behind me and pulled them out from under me. The blood made it look a lot worse than it was but I remember thinking I should duct tape it shut. Shortly thereafter, my friends lost track of me and it was my resident advisor who called the cops when she found me in the women’s restroom throwing up.
As with any alcoholic, that wasn’t my wake up call.
I spent a few years out of college working on a boat. There was even a time when I was homeless, but they were short staffed and I kept jumping on shifts. So I kept working which, more or less, gave me a place to crash. We were sailors and it’s a culture that lends itself to drinks – lots of drinks. I felt at home.
However, in the same way that all people have habits and pet peeves we poke fun at, i.e. Sam pronounces milk “melk,” the thing people kept poking fun at me for was having a bad memory. My friends and colleagues would create lengthy stories about me: the time I tried getting a bartender to help me flirt with a woman at a bar by playing charades because she did not speak English; the time I ruined a party by hanging on the balcony railing; the time I got thrown out of a grocery store by getting into a fight with a cardboard cutout. The joke was they’d tell me I had this awful memory. “ ‘Member that time when…” felt like a setup to a joke each time, until I actually remembered one. “Remembered” is a generous term, and patched together is more accurate. The short version is, I hopped into a long boat when we were sailing at night and untied myself from the sloop. It is nothing short of miraculous that my friends found me that night and reeled me back in.
If you can, try and soak that in. I wasn’t incarcerated, I wasn’t hospitalized (this time), I was adrift at sea and had they not poked fun, I wouldn’t have remembered any of it. The realization that these “jokes” about my antics were real was… I can’t even put it into words. Even now, it’s not the fact that I could’ve been lost at sea. It’s that these stories, these misadventures, were real. That, after a certain number of drinks (what number, I couldn’t tell you), somebody else took over. I became an unconscious passenger doing things I never thought I was capable of. I always thought people hyperbolized stories or sensationalized them for effect, but I remembered untethering the boat and drifting into the dark.
This led me down a rabbit hole of research and self diagnosis. Fortunately, unlike many other diseases, addiction is pretty cut and dry.
Recovery isn’t easy, and I had my fair share of missteps, but I get by journaling a little every day. I keep track of who I am and am responsible for all my actions. I use the I Am Sober app daily where I send myself messages to read in the future and journal what made certain days tough. I find that the more I catalogue my issues, the less weight they seem to carry. I still get cravings occasionally, but – because I’m journaling – I’m noticing that annually they happen less and less. Instead of letting someone else drive, I am my own designated driver at all times and it feels good. I don’t pretend that I have control, but I do manage. And I’m happy to say I’m five years sober, a college graduate, and on the right track.