Three years ago today, I stopped drinking.
Yesterday, I spoke to my dad -– who is also in recovery –- about the upcoming anniversary. He wanted to share something someone once told him.
“When you stop drinking, it won’t solve your problems,” he said. “But you’ll be able to know your real problems, and not just the ones you’re creating for yourself.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Three years ago, when I stopped drinking, I knew I had to; if I didn’t I was certain I was going to die.
For nearly a decade, my life had, in many ways, been defined by my tumultuous relationship with alcohol. There were hospitalizations, and rehabilitations; there were relationships ruined, and dreams depleted; there were increasingly frightening -– and common -– blackouts, and days spent in bed miserably recovering from the night before.
Yet throughout this, I convinced myself that alcohol was what made me happy; what made my life a little less meaningless. I really believed that the intoxicated version of myself was my true being; the sober person that I left behind felt so sad and deflated, so cautious and needy. I didn’t believe I was truly happy, but I believed that with alcohol, I was the happiest I could possibly be. I was more than willing to accept the side effects that came with that consumption.
“I didn’t believe I was truly happy, but I believed that with alcohol, I was the happiest I could possibly be.”
Of course, none of it makes any sense. As a drunken person, I was verbally aggressive; I said mean things to get my way, and in the moment didn’t care who I hurt. I was insecure, and I sought emotional and sexual validation. I cried, often and woke up each morning having done or said at least one thing that I regretted.
If someone was mad at me, or when something bad happened, I always blamed it on the alcohol.
I didn’t mean the nasty thing I said, I was drunk.
I didn’t actually want to hurt myself, I just had too much to drink.
I know I could have died, but I didn’t, and moving forward I’ll drink less.
Those excuses (mostly) worked, and I was able to keep drinking to excess. But, I didn’t ‘get away with it’ because I was so much smarter than everyone else (like I thought) or because my drinking habits were more normal than people were acknowledging (like I truly believed.) I got away with it, because at a certain point, people didn’t really know what else they could do. You can’t help someone who doesn’t want to help themselves, so they were stuck watching a car crash; some looked away, others ran away and still more watched, holding their breath, hoping that I might come out alive.
At the end of my drinking career, when I realized that I’d lost everything that mattered to me -– joy for life, honest relationships, compassion and self-love -– I gave up alcohol.
After more failed attempts at quitting than I can event count, this time it worked. I don’t think it was because I hit ‘rock bottom.’ I think I finally opened my eyes and saw how much more darkness lay beneath me; that perhaps there wasn’t a true rock bottom and for a person with such a streak of self-destruction, I would always be able to find a way to hurt myself a little more.
I didn’t want that, I realized; I wanted to be happy, or at least to try to be. I wanted to be functional and reliable and kind. I hadn’t been any of things for many years.
In early sobriety, what I found out quickly was another piece of wisdom my dad had tried to impart onto me a year and a half before when he visited me while I studied abroad in India. At the time, I had a full-blown addiction to Xanax, and I was trying to wean myself off. For days, I could not stop crying; I was blaming my emotional state on being in India and out of my comfort zone.
With a blend of sympathy and tough love he turned to me and gently said, “I think you’re finding out the hard way that wherever you go, there you’ll be.”
Early sobriety in many ways, felt much like my time in India: I was navigating terrain that was so far beyond my comfort zone, where all of my preconceived notions were constantly being proven wrong. I was in a place where the only constant was what I wanted to most escape: Myself.
The initial exhilaration of sobriety, and making such a powerful decision made the first week easy.
Then the novelty faded; I was no longer preoccupied with the announcements that I was making to all of my friends and family. They already knew. My coronation was over, and now it was time to do the hard work. It was time to actually be sober, and not just to be told how strong I was, or how proud people were of me. It was time to not drink for myself.
Like my dad pointed out, sobriety did not mean my problems went away; it meant that they were no longer moving targets darting around as blurs in front of me. They were now perceivable and imminent; issues I had to actually face.
Without alcohol, I no longer felt like my bottom had fallen out, but I still felt quite close to, if not on, the bottom. I thought sobriety would be gleeful, I thought that I would now be ‘happy’ and more easily fulfilled.
“Sobriety did not mean my problems went away; it meant that they were no longer moving targets darting around as blurs in front of me.”
That wasn’t the case.
Day after day, I had to wake up and just be sober. I had to accept that I didn’t like where my life was, and that it was at that point because of decisions I had made. There were some relationships that weren’t salvageable; there were some dreams that would take years to fulfill because I’d spent so long trying to find the easiest way out. I had to get used to the sound of my own voice, and think about what I wanted to say and how I said it, because I could no longer say that I had only said it because I was drunk.
I had to accept that there was still a persistent sadness and self-hatred that had not only been there because I’d been an alcoholic.
I thought back to years earlier, when I’d been at a concert. I’d taken Ecstasy with a group of friends, and as it set in, I just kept wanting more. I took another pill, and though most people I was with felt sufficiently high and wanted to avoid drinking, I was seeking it out.
The combination made me feel like I was floating, and numb and dulled. I felt so close to death, yet present. In that moment, I felt bliss.
In sobriety, thinking back to that moment terrified me. What was it inside of me that sought to destroy my own essence? Why did I feel joy in that moment of danger, when I now felt apathetic and flat in this period of self-nurturing?
Answering questions like that has been the hardest part of sobriety. Hell, I still don’t have all the answers; I’m not even close.
Becoming sober wasn’t like removing the exterior layer of paint on a wrecked car, and finding that there was a perfect, brand new car beneath; everything that I struggled with was still there. The only difference was that it was now just much more visible without the mask of alcoholism.
Without alcohol, I still found that I had mean thoughts, that I sought validation, and that I sometimes still woke up shrouded in darkness. I realized I could still do all of the same shitty things.
I could still spend days in bed.
I could still have mindless sex to remind myself that I was wanted.
I could still punish myself; I could still eat too little, or too much; I could deprive myself of sleep, or not do the things I love.
I could still keep secrets; I could still be guarded, and emotionally opaque. I could still be scared; I could still be dishonest about the things I wanted, and devastated when they didn’t happen how I’d hoped.
I don’t want that.
I want to dig in; I want to push myself to feel joy and to feel whole. Whether that comes through antidepressants and therapy, yoga and meditation, writing and conversation, I am willing to try it all.
Not all of my questions are answered, and not all of my problems are solved; my urge to self-destruct has dwindled, but it still chirps in, on occasion.
But, my voice of reason is louder and stronger:
No, you shouldn’t drink until you’re physically there but mentally gone; in fact you shouldn’t drink at all.
No, the world is not ending because something went wrong.
Sure, you can sleep with that person, but do you actually want to? He isn’t going to magically add meaning to your life.
No, life is not just a river that you blindly hurl yourself into and see where you end up.
I know that each morning, when I wake up, there is only going to be one person, who will never go away from me, and that person is myself.
Three years ago, the fastest way to deny that reality was to get shitfaced.
Today, I am okay with waking up and sometimes feeling uncertain; I am okay with not always feeling content or whole, or brave or sure.
Three years ago, I was scared. Today, I am not.
Today, I can see my problems, and I’m ready to fight.
This essay is included in Seamus Kirst’s memoir, Shitfaced: Musings of a Former Drunk.
A version of this post originally appeared on the author’s blog,www.seamuskirst.com
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.