The struggle is real. That’s what I likely said and certainly felt in the early days of my decision to stop drinking and it’s what I’ve had to face once again. There is so much that I want to say in this post, so much that is pouring through my head as I finally sit down to write, that it’s difficult to figure out where to start. Let me start with this: On February 20th, 2018 I gave up alcohol for good. 294 days later, I slipped.
Quitting drinking was so hard to do the first time around. It was maddening. The early months were spent obsessing about alcohol. My preoccupation was such that all I could do was think about and talk about what it was like to go without a drink when I wasn’t overcome with thinking about wanting one. But somewhere along the way, I did what I’ve heard many people do - I subtly questioned myself. It wasn’t overt, but there was a deep wondering about whether I really did have a problem with alcohol. The further away I was from the feelings that brought me to the reason for stopping, the easier it became to consider if there ever was a genuine problem. Despite the nudges from my inner voice, in my clearest of heads I still knew that I couldn’t go back to drinking. But that didn’t stop me from occasionally considering that maybe I’d just gotten carried away with this ‘problem thing’. Then one day, not so long ago, I made a decision that would put this to rest.
Many of you who are reading this likely know that my husband and I recently made a fairly sudden move from Charlotte, NC back to Lansing, MI. We spent 12 wonderful years in Charlotte, but knew it was time to head back to the great frozen tundra to be closer to family again. Once we set our minds on a path, things tend to move quickly, and this occasion was no different. We honestly didn’t think our home would sell as fast as it did, but after a short time on the market, a buyer swooped in and wanted a quick sale. Three weeks after the day of accepting the offer, the house was packed, loaded on the moving truck and we spent our first night back in Michigan on a mattress on the floor of our temporary apartment. To capture the speed and events around this move, I have repeatedly described it as a whirlwind. There was a rapid flurry of activity with hardly any time to breathe, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t perfectly organized – because that is what I do. Sometimes to my own detriment.
On December 20th, the day we kick-started the moving plans, I received a phone call that made me laugh. It was my 10-month sobriety anniversary and it was the local liquor store calling to say that my name had finally come up on a list for a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. Some four years prior, I had added my name to the list for the coveted bottles. Very limited quantities are available each year and this year I was one of the lucky few. I’m pretty sure the woman on the other end of the line interpreted my laughter as excitement instead of the ironic cackle that only I was aware of. I told my husband that we may as well consider it a gift for him or a friend, and we picked up the bottle.
Let me just preface this by saying that having that bottle in the house isn’t what made me want to drink. We still had a number of bottles tucked away that never bothered me much. It wasn’t even about that specific bourbon, I’ve had it and never quite understood why people would shell out upwards of $400 for a bottle (for the record, we paid retail price of something far less). But this is the time frame when those thoughts of having just one drink of anything started swirling around my head. Looking back, it’s no wonder. I was making plans for the move. I was packing and arranging the details. I was attempting to tie up any loose ends in a short period of time. But it was more than that. I was sitting smack dab in the middle of one of the most triggering situations in my life.
A good week after picking up that bottle, while knee deep in packing boxes, I told my husband that I had been considering having one small drink for days. I told him I was sure that it was a very conscious decision and I would set that limit and stick by it, if it was in fact what I decided to do. He said he trusted me. At that time, I trusted myself. I know, I know. Some of my sober friends reading this are pretty much screaming out loud right now about how I know better and asking how I could have come to this place after so much hard work. It’s easy to see now that my judgement at the time was clouded. What I thought was a reasonable decision turns out was just me trying to escape the trauma for a little while. After all that I’ve learned and the experiences that I’ve had, even I couldn’t see it for what it was right away. Remember that little thing called denial?
I chose that one drink. It felt strange, it wasn’t even all that pleasant. Sure, I entered the slightly warm and fuzzy phase for a very short time, waiting for the stress of the previous weeks to melt off, but instead felt physically awful within about an hour. Slamming back into my body were all the reminders of how terrible the mornings after drinking used to be. I felt like I had poisoned myself. I’ll admit I was a little surprised it happened so fast, I now understood what it was to be a lightweight. The whole experience was a complete turn-off and I quietly proclaimed that I had just learned a big lesson.
Less than a week later, I was upstairs working on more packing, when my husband left in my car to go run some errands. His car had already been packed up for the trip to Michigan, to include a taped-up box of the few remaining bottles of booze from the house. It was late in the afternoon and within a few minutes of him leaving, something strange happened. I stopped what I was doing and felt overcome with wanting a drink. The problem is that I didn’t give myself any time to consider what I was doing. It felt like I was watching a movie as my body made its way out to the garage, opened the car, peeled the tape back from the box and pulled out one of the open bottles. I could see myself ducking behind a wall out of view from any neighbors to take a swig. Just as quickly as the event started, it ended. I put the bottle back, replaced the tape and headed back to packing.
My last one drink would come after arriving to Michigan. The trip was long, the days that followed were busy and the movers had delivered our belongings. When I finally had an evening with a sofa to sit on and glasses to drink from, I decided to pour myself one very small whiskey to relax. But I waited until after my husband headed out to the airport when I was alone. That was January 14th. I would confess this and the garage drink to my husband a few days later.
What I realized on January 14th, and truthfully that day when I took the swig in the garage, was I genuinely do have a problem. I wasn’t turning to alcohol because I thought I might just enjoy one, that was ridiculous. I was doing it to numb. I had that first one and no matter how terrible it made me feel, the obsession grew inside of me again and it was immediate. The old thoughts had returned. The cravings for that thing that helped me to relax were back. That habit that let me quiet down at the end of every day wanted to become a part of my world again. It was too easy to fall right back into it, and that, I saw clearly. It was terrifying.
During the early days of the move, I had an email exchange with Jean from The Bubble Hour podcast. Her words to me were “Please build in down time and self-care to counter the stress and upheaval of the move. Even when big transitions go well, they can be difficult.” Now, I’m the biggest advocate of self-care and those words were with me through every step of the three-week upheaval. I kept stopping to give myself little moments to breathe. I attempted to stick to my morning rituals and I thought I was doing my best to be aware of my needs; however, even with the perfect planning, the move was highly disruptive, and it turns out, highly triggering. I am still unpacking the effects of all the moves I went through as a child, and one day I’ll go into that a bit more, but those traumas decided to present themselves this time around. During all my attempts at self-care, I didn’t allow myself the time to take a good, long look at what was happening to me. Instead, I fell into my prior inclination to shove and numb. It snuck right up on me.
I only had three single drinks over the span of two weeks. I didn’t go out and get plastered, but it was the reason behind those drinks that disturbed me the most. In many cases, it’s the very reason we choose to drink that defines if we have a problem. I could walk around feeling miserable about giving up so much work after so long, but instead, I think this needed to happen. While I can’t say definitively that I will never question if I really have a problem again, I do know that this turn of events will be the first thing I look to if that thought should ever arise. I can not have just one.
If you are wondering how I am doing today, I am so much better. The days after that last drink were incredibly difficult. The cravings were back in full force, and I had to fight extra hard all over again, but the worst seems to be over. I am keeping my tools close at hand and my eyes open. I am working on setting new rituals and finding my stride in a new place. Today, I feel really good. Today, I am sober.