I broke up with alcohol in 2007, at the end of May. When people asked why I quit drinking, I just say that we had a bad relationship—and I was tired of being slapped around.
I never want to go through withdrawal again. Detoxing was horrible. I shivered, vomited, and half-slept for days, sweating, hallucinating. I was too sick to call in to work. When my boss finally got a hold of me, she asked, “Are you OK?” She sounded pissed.
“I can’t talk,” I said. The phone fell out of my hand. I passed out before it hit the floor next to my bed.
The first month without alcohol was a painful haze. I wasn’t drinking, but I definitely wasn’t sober, either. I kept smoking weed. It maybe helped. At least, it kept people’s faces from sliding around when I talked to them. Xanax and morphine helped, too, in the beginning. I experimented until I hit on a mix of chemicals that made me feel functional. I tried to find balance, and when I got there, I was afraid to change any part of the equation. I wasn’t strong enough to risk another hard crash landing.
When my Xanax prescription ran out, I didn’t refill it; when I’d eaten my last morphine tablet, I didn’t call my dealer to ask for more. But I kept getting stoned, daily, starting from the moment I woke up.
“I’m having these weird anxiety attacks,” I told my boss. She’d bought my story about being terribly ill and let me keep my job, but I knew she scrutinized me. My behavior was erratic, my moods all over the place. I missed alcohol and I was heartbroken that I couldn’t drink the way I wanted to without serious problems. I’d never been much of a stoner, but weed felt like my last resort. At least, I rationalized, it was natural.
From the end of May to the end of June, I grappled with my alcohol cravings. Marijuana wasn’t legal then, but easy to buy. I smoked spliffs on the way to work, beelining through downtown Portland with a renewed sense of focus. Outside, I was doing fine. Inside, I didn’t know how long I could hold out. I dreamed about drinking and woke up tasting vodka. I lingered outside the bars, gazing in the windows like a man on a diet looks at a cold case of eclairs. I didn’t really believe that I’d given up drinking for good, but I knew what I was like when I was drunk and I was tired of those consequences.
Then, suddenly, it was July.
A dry fever settled on the city; the grass dried to straw. The air was dusty and close, scented with Mexican food, exhaust fumes, and burning briquettes. Weed was unappealing—it turned my lungs dry, too, the same arid temperature as the air outside my body—but I took it like a medicine. It didn’t take my cravings away, necessarily, but it made me not care and it was about ten thousand times better than the way I felt unmedicated. I had spiritual road rash; weed tempered my pain.
My company’s president—about two levels up from my boss—hosted an annual Fourth of July party at her home, in a wealthy neighborhood on the east side. I rode my bike there and arrived sweaty and late. One of my coworkers threw a glare at me as I locked up next to the garden hose on the side of the house.
“Those are Jill’s day lilies,” she said. The bike wheel had rolled over the tender plants, unrecognizable without their bright orange blossoms. “Maybe you should just leave it out by the sidewalk.”
I shrugged, pretending I wasn’t embarrassed. My high started to wear off, leaving a heavy, squeezing headache behind. The porch was decorated with red, white, and blue bunting and everyone looked like they belonged in a Land’s End catalog. The men wore pastel, beachy button-downs and, to my memory, all the women were in sundresses or chic shorts. It was 80 degrees out and only getting hotter. I stowed my bike helmet in my messenger bag and put my hands in the pockets of my cutoffs. My tattoos were showing. My hair was rumpled and salty from sweat. I realized that I not only didn’t belong there—I didn’t want to fucking be there. I stood on the first step, looking at the other people laughing, refilling each other’s red solo cups. There was an ice chest on the porch, open, jammed with green bottles of beer.
I was stuck there. I could hear the alcohol singing to me, the tiny voice all alcoholics hear, strong and piercing as a dog whistle. I also knew that I couldn’t drink. One cocktail would sicken me, and I’d be right back where I was a month ago: vomiting into my sheets because I didn’t have the strength to get out of bed. I hesitated, and as I weighed my options, I heard a high, sweet voice off to my right.
A woman in a lemon-yellow bikini was standing on the lawn one house over. She was laughing with someone I couldn’t see, a man who talked to her through the house’s open window. A blue plastic kiddie pool sat in the grass with a hose running into it. The woman put her hands on her hips and waggled them provocatively at the man, teasing. Then, she turned and saw me.
“You hot?” she said.
I nodded, dumbly. She waved me over. Up close, I could see that she was older than I thought. Her hair was dyed a vibrant red and stood out in a corona of curls. She was short and muscly as an acrobat, long through the torso. Her back was broad. Her belly curved out, like a child’s. No tan lines. Her name was Roxy.
“Jeff’s in the house,” she told me, with a shrug. “You’re pretty. Do you smoke?”
“Cigarettes?” I asked.
She laughed. “You’re funny, too. How about you get into the pool with me?”
It is an indicator of my mental state at the time that I didn’t think twice about unbuttoning my shorts, tying a knot in my t-shirt, and hopping in. With both of us in it, the water flowed high enough to cover our hips. We were in plain sight of the party next door—I could hear my boss’ voice, distinct above the Jimmy Buffett CD playing on the stereo. Roxy made a joke about it, how there should be a city ordinance about having so many normal people in one place, people in polo shirts, people drinking Corona Light unironically, people asking each other over and over about their families and kids and how’s things in your department, which made me laugh because I felt the same way, too, crammed into a sea of people who had mysteriously figured things out while I was still going in endless circles. Roxy asked if I wanted to go for a walk and a smoke, and I said yes. We both stood up, dripping.
She had an eighth in the house of something good, she said. And sundresses for both of us.
“Jeff doesn’t care, he’s having a client over later.”
She looked me dead in the eye. “He’s whipping her,” she told me. “We have a studio in the back, for visitors. Jeff’s a master with a whip.”
“Oh,” I choked. “Is he . . .?”
“How do you think we afford this house? Of course he’s good. He’s the best.”
The afternoon only got stranger, until I was incapable of distinguishing between reality and the bizarre fantasies that sparkled against the dark sky of my brain like burning rockets. Roxy led me through her neighborhood, down side streets lined with bougainvillea vines. She seemed to know everyone’s dog, and we stopped to say hello to the people grilling in their yards or setting off small, cheap fireworks in their driveways. The world was somehow too orange. It hurt my eyes. I kept my sunglasses on, feeling like a creep. Roxy didn’t slow down at all. My mouth got drier and my skin started to burn.
“I need a drink,” I muttered to her as we turned down yet another alley, shaded by bamboo.
“Come back to my place.”
The party at my boss’ house died down by the time we got to Roxy’s. The porch light was on, and the music—the Eagles, “Hotel California,” a song I’d always hated—had moved to the back yard, along with the handful of people who didn’t have other parties or families to go home to. I heard my boss’ voice, and knew I probably wouldn’t be hearing it for much longer. I’d done everything wrong. Why did it feel so natural to me, to fuck everything up?
Roxy’s wading pool was half full, grass clippings floating in the dirty gray water. The hose coiled next to it, looking like a sick snake. My bike was where I’d left it. My bag and helmet, too, and my wet clothes. Everything was too bright and immediate—it pricked me, but at the same time I couldn’t make my body move fast enough to keep up with my brain. When Roxy put her hand on my shoulder, I felt every fingerprint stabbing into my skin, dragging heavily over my nerve endings, the sensation so strong that I couldn’t do anything but follow her touch into the house.
I remember nothing beyond that moment.
What I do have is the email I wrote on July 6, an apology to a friend I’d forgotten I was supposed to meet.
I’m sorry. I got fucked up again, lost track of myself. It’s not you, it’s me: I’m an alcoholic.
It was the first time I’d said those words out loud, to myself or anyone, and seeing them in black and white drove it home. I was done. With everything. I had to be.
I used to think that getting high released me from myself. But there is a vast difference between freedom and independence. July 6, 2007 was my first sober day, and I’ve kept that streak running for ten crazy, rich, colorful years. It’s a new freedom, as they say—a new happiness. I don’t come out of a blackout wondering where I am, anymore. I don’t gravitate towards people who want to use me. My independence comes from a deeper connection with myself, a kind of faith in the person I really am, and my absolute trust that everything will work out just fine if I keep my nose clean.
When the first fireworks pop overhead this Independence Day, I get to remember where I used to be—and how very, very far I’ve flown since then.
This story originally appeared in Transformation Is Real on July 2, 2016.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.