Celebrating the 2019 holidays in Napa was, in many ways, the grand finale on the most perfect stage.
For nearly 20 years, I drank my way through December. Choosing 2020 as the year to get sober is the most radical, subversive, and wildly loving thing I’ve ever done. Pain will make you spectacularly brave.
And there may be nothing quite as painful as living on the brink of becoming yourself.
You can envision her with such clarity. You can smell her, you know her deeply, but you can’t yet access her. She’s a stranger, an idea, an apparition. You don’t believe she’s you, but when she calls for you, the echo vibrates from within. You’re locked out. You’re not sure exactly what’s on the other side, but you’re afraid it might be beautiful. There’s a key you don’t have, a code you can’t break. You swear you’re just one day, one meditation, one therapy session away from assuming life as her. But days come and days go, and yet, you are not her.
She repeats with gentle authority, “Stop abandoning yourself.” You don’t know what this means. The words are clear, but they can’t find a safe place to land. You are a fortress. The pit of your stomach throws punches at the lining of its own walls.
And then, one day, it happens: your knees hit the kitchen floor as the voice says, “You will never become who you are meant to be if you don’t get sober.” Almost offended, you abruptly stop crying. “That’s what she’s been trying to tell me? To stop drinking?” You can’t connect your pain with the buttery white wine or the hoppy double IPAs; the bottles and cans are too pretty, and they’ve promised too much.
But the empty bottle is blurred by tears, and you think—maybe, just maybe—the voice knows something you don’t. You decide to jump; you choose the other side of the wall. Twenty years of architecture crumbles. This is your first glimpse of truth. You see a brilliant, golden foundation beneath the rubble and think, “Has this been here all along?” And you know it has, because you’ve ached for its promise of peace for so many years; we don’t hunger in this way for the impossible.
You’re startled by the realization: you never needed the drugs and alcohol. You never needed the approval. You never needed the validation. You never needed to run. You needed to see you and love you and watch yourself glow in all of your golden light. You needed to become you.
I hear this narrative in sobriety support meetings all the time: “It wasn’t that bad,” they say. I’m guilty of it myself: I didn’t get fired, charged with a DUI, or lose custody of my kids (I don’t have any children, so that might not be fair). But being chronically exhausted, engaging in self-sabotage, and feeling as though you’re in a spiritual crisis, merely existing? I promise you: it’s that bad. Making your body a home for secrets will slowly kill you. But something sacred happens when you hold your heart in your hands and offer it to another suffering human being: “Look—here I am. And I see you.”
You need the medicine that can only come from connection. When you acknowledge your truth, you exempt yourself from the burden of perfection and other people’s ideas of how your one, unique life ought to be inhabited. Expectations are heavy and hard to carry—and were never meant for you, anyway. Vulnerability is the most beautiful expression of freedom. And it is the prescription for the way out.
When I chose to get sober in March, I was experiencing a significant amount of what I’ll describe as “soul pain.” There’s no other way to put it. I was clawing at the edges of my life to escape from guilt, regret, sadness, loneliness, and fear. I was behaving in ways that were wounding myself and others, and I couldn’t bear the weight of my own shame anymore; when you don’t love yourself, your actions will confess it like a neon sign. I had to exhume the bodies of all of my former selves and their secrets that I’d buried in a drunken stupor, “Where to begin? And who has that many shovels?”
Showing grace to myself is an ongoing, complicated, and thorny undertaking. I want to cradle the earlier, wounded versions of myself and tell them how much they’re loved and how sorry I am for abandoning them. I want to scream at the sky and ask the universe why it allowed me to punish myself for so long. But the sky won’t reply. I already know the answer: it took as long as it took—now move on. The most sincere apology I can offer myself and others is never picking up another drink. Loving myself fully is “I’m sorry” personified. Forgiveness is an inside job.
And so I stay curious about this absolutely brilliant, mysterious place we call home, the fact that we’re all intricately connected, the belief that the universe has a better plan for me than I have for myself. I engage in an ongoing dialogue with the whispering voice; I want us to grow roots as deep as I dare to imagine. I want to take as many lifetimes as necessary to see where they lead and understand why it all unfolded as it did. I know that the voice is both me, and bigger than me. Can you think of a more incredible miracle than that?
Though the journey is long, I’m reminded that life is not one grand procrastination. In any given moment, I can live differently. I am living differently. I am still here. I am still here. I am here. I am making hard and smart choices, and I am learning the art of staying. Staying with my experience. Staying with emotions. Staying in a dialogue with the universe. Staying sober. Maybe that’s what it means to be human—to stay present for your gloriously messy life, until staying is the only choice you’d ever make.
The armor that pressed against me every time I tried to protect myself has left a faint but unmistakable imprint. Perhaps the impression is enough to carry with me as a reminder not to run away from another December, to look bravely at the parts of myself that scare me, and choose to love every single contour of my map.
The voice whispers, “Get to know your wolves. Meet them with compassion and soft eyes. Stay.”