What I wanted from sobriety

A few weeks ago, I celebrated 29 years of sobriety. It’s been almost three decades since I last snorted a line of cocaine through a rolled up dollar bill, guzzled vodka tonics until I felt the numbing warmth slowly spread through my body, or woke up from a blackout covered in my own vomit, shuddering to think about what I said or did the night before.

Friends who aren’t in recovery sometimes ask me, “Do you still need to go to those meetings?” The simple answer is “Yes, yes I do.” Mostly because alcoholism and addiction is a cunning disease. It’s a disease that tells you you don’t have a disease. That it’s been so long since you got stupid drunk, your body can surely handle one glass of wine now, or a toke from a joint to soften the edges of a hard day.

But I’ve been around long enough to see what happens to people who convince themselves they can safely drink or use again. Some I never see again. Perhaps they’re doing OK and found a different path – I hope that’s true. But I’ve also gone to enough funerals to know that a lot of them use or drink again and die. Thankfully, a lot more come back into recovery. None of them ever talks about how much fun it was to use again.

I still go to meetings to hear these stories and because I’m drawn to the raw honesty you hear from people in recovery. They’re my medicine, my church, the place my feet know to take me when life gets too overwhelming and real. The first year I probably annoyed the hell out of the old-timers because all I could talk about was my awful breakup with my addict boyfriend. But as I got my sea legs and started making new friends and using the program as a blueprint for how to live my life, my world expanded. And eventually, I grew up.

I was only 25 when I put down my last drink and drug, but at the time I remember feeling incredibly old. All of my college friends were starting careers and traveling and getting married and seemed to have a direction. I was living in a dark Manhattan apartment eking out a miserable existence as a secretary. And marking my days until my next drink, my next drug.

My sponsor told me when I first got sober to write a list of everything I wanted from sobriety. I don’t remember everything I wrote on that list, but I do remember writing that I wanted to be able to look in the mirror and not hate myself.

I think sometimes of the utter sadness and despair in that list. I was 25 years old, and my life should have been so exciting, so full of plans and ideas. And I couldn’t even look in a mirror without quickly turning away in disgust.

Later on, my sponsor told me that she tells newcomers to write this list because she knows that they will shortchange themselves. Because you get so much more. Some people say that sobriety gave them their life back. I didn’t feel I had much of a life before I came into the rooms of recovery. For me, at least, recovery gave me the life I didn’t even know I wanted.

I wasn’t instantly struck happy, joyous and free, though. I suffered a lot of losses in sobriety. But I’ve never had to suffer alone. Whether it was a panic attack when the drug/booze fog lifted and I was left staring at the wreck I’d made of my short life, the death of a close friend from AIDS back in the 80s or the loss of my baby to a late miscarriage, I marched into a recovery meeting and shared my pain with a group of other recovering addicts. And somehow, that helped me get through it.

In these past 29 years. I’ve realized my dream to marry and become a mother, become dissatisfied with both, cycled through two careers, and finally hit upon a creative outlet that fills my life with new meaning.

Although I don’t believe in numerology, when I googled the number 29, I found that it’s supposed to signify grace under pressure. Well, I haven’t always been graceful in sobriety. I’ve repeatedly hurt those I love, roughly pushed people away who only wanted to help me, nearly wrecked my marriage, lost and gained dozens of pounds, loving and hating my body in equal measure, mourned the loss of a child’s devotion as if it were a personal affront, and secretly wished that I would suffer some kind of accident just to earn a break from responsibilities – a month or two to just be.

But through it all, I do one thing right. I don’t pick up a drink or a drug to numb my feelings. There’s a saying in the rooms of recovery that I love – “There’s nothing that can happen in your life that a drink or drug won’t make worse.” I gave up the anesthetic of drugs and booze 29 years ago. In return, I was granted my messy life, which I meet with a clear head on a daily basis.

When I look in the mirror today, I am no longer that 25-year-old girl who couldn’t bear staring into her soul, because it felt so unbearably dark. I see some extra pounds and new streaks of gray that on bad days, make me feel like a middle-aged matron. But mostly I see a woman who has lived an extraordinary life, and in some ways, is just getting started.