Shots to Shakes: Musings of a Retired Blackout Artist, Year One
May 15, 2019
TW: suicide, alcohol abuse
You know when you have a sleepover at a friend’s house, and everyone uses up all the blankets, so you need to get creative with how you cover yourself up? That’s how I woke up in a hospital cot – they didn’t give me any blankets, so I resorted to using the bed sheet. I woke up, in hospital scrubs, feeling like I was on the set of Shutter Island with no recollection of how I got there. There were four white walls, a heavy metal door with a tiny window, and a small television. The room was roughly the size of a restaurant bathroom. It was like a dream – I stumbled out of the room and asked when I would be getting picked up, or could go back, or anything. There was a police officer guarding the entrance, and the nurse looked at me with confusion.
“You can’t go home right now, you tried to kill yourself last night. We need to keep you here for the weekend.”
“You took a boxcutter to your wrists, but your husband grabbed them last second.”
It didn’t process with me at all. Me? Kill myself? I knew that I had suicidal ideations and outbursts, and that I had a death wish whenever I woke up hungover, but actually trying to go through with it? The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. And the more sorrow and helplessness I felt.
I don’t know what was more sad – how I ended up there, or how I started crying because I didn’t know my husband’s cell phone number by heart to call him. That’s how much this disease isolated me from connection. So I stayed there, for the 72 hour hold, dehydrated, starving, sweating, withdrawing, exhausted, bored, and overall…lost. I spent 3 days watching TV, praying, and, for the first time in my life, having absolutely no idea what was going to happen next. The day I got out, I voluntarily checked myself into rehab.
I wish that this was the happy ending, the before and after montage of my recovery, but you know what they say – man plans, and God laughs. Rehab was the best choice, though. My alcohol abuse had built up to the point where a hard cider would touch my lips and I wouldn’t be able to tell you if the night was going to end peacefully or being escorted into an ambulance by police, absolutely humiliated. So I did the 28 days, did the meetings, smoked the rehab cigarettes and drank the shitty coffee. I made the rehab friends, who isolated me from the rest of the world all in the name of “sticking together.” I did the song and dance, thinking as long as I made my family and friends and husband happy, then I was set.
See what went wrong there?
I remember the day after the last relapse, somehow battling a wine and Angry Orchard sugary hangover at the same time, collecting my white chip from the AA meeting at the rehab facility that I had just graduated from. All the hugs, clapping, “I’m proud of you's,” and all I wanted to do was go home and keep napping until hopefully sinking into the bed, never returning. The most dramatic consequences of my life happened in 2017, and I STILL went back? This wasn’t empowering, this was humiliating. Alcohol felt like the shitty ex-boyfriend I couldn’t quit, and after being abused and violated by men already, this was the last thing I wanted to feel.
After completing my rehab stay, I had returned home with an even more tortured soul than going in. We said that I went to California for a month to visit family, and it felt like I was being crushed by a 100 pound mask whenever somebody asked how my vacation was. But it was over, right? The worst had happened – surviving a suicide attempt and being 51-50’d for 3 days straight wasn’t exactly subtle. All the drama and blackouts and pain that I had put people through since 20fucking11, this was the end of the movie where the protagonist finally gets their shit together. But nope. I got resentful and lonely, and it led me back to old habits – drinking alone and ending the night in a blacked out, snotty-nose crying chaos. I was safe, I got home safe, I woke up safe – but I still wanted to die.
It’s my first birthday on Monday. Honestly, I’m more excited about this one than my birth birthday. Because it took a lot more than being pushed out of a birth canal – it took rigorous honesty, ending some relationships that were doing way more harm than good, and developing new hobbies that actually don’t revolve around beer pong streaks. Go figure.
I’m supposed to talk about lessons learned in sobriety, but the truth is this – I’ve been in recovery officially since January 2016. There have been moments that I’ve gone back and repeated a lot of fucked up habits, but they say that healing trauma is like a spiral; even when you think you’ve ended up at the same place, you’ve gotten a little bit closer to the solution. That’s comforting for somebody who has to make the same mistake 12-20 times just to make sure that it truly isn’t for them.
To be honest, it still feels embarrassing and a little phony talking about all that led up to this. The last thing I want to do is make people think that dRaMa and shock value are the key to a good and successful recovery journey. That’s absolutely not the case. There are some friends that simply saw that alcohol wasn’t benefiting them anymore, so they stopped. Plain and simple. I just happen to have a flair for the theatrical, apparently.
But enough about that. It’s all about staying in the present and being in tune with your body or whatever, right? So, as I sit criss cross apple sauce on my office floor, Diet Coke at the ready, here are my top lessons from Year 1.
You Can’t Change People – You Can Only Change Your Response to Them
Ahh, rehab friends. You stick with them for a month, spend every waking hour with them, and believe that you all will emerge victorious and recovered and become the best buddies for life! Let’s all laugh together now.
This was one of my main components for the relapse, I’m not going to sugarcoat it. I made my rehab friends my higher power – even when they acted like assholes, shamed me, made me constantly cry, brought up my past constantly, isolated me from my friends and family. And I STILL defended them because, hey, we went to rehab together! They have to be good people, right? Finally, it got to a point where I didn’t even recognize myself with these people. So, at a month newly sober, I blocked them on social media and in life. It took some hand holding from a friend (shout out to Christina) but it happened. And holy shit – that was the best choice I could’ve made.
You can’t change or fix people, even if they want to change or be fixed. It’s always an inside job for every individual. You can support, you can aid, you can nag, but if you put your self worth in how “effective” you are at fixing people, you’ve got a whole world of hurt heading your way. Protecting your energy and being selective of who you let into your emotional/mental space is going to feel weird for all of us recovering people pleasers. But what blew my mind is when I learned two things:
- Apologizing without changed behavior is manipulation
- People pleasing and forcing your narrative on others is manipulation
So what do we do? I don’t have all the answers, but what I CAN tell you is this – making people like you and making people do anything, really, is futile and draining.
Stagnant Water Attracts Mosquitos
We all know I’m a sucker for a good metaphor, and living in North Carolina, this one I can personally attest to as I scratch the tenth bite of the day. I’m sure you’ve heard of this metaphor before, but here’s the gist: A body of water must constantly have water going through, in and out of it, or else it becomes stagnant and gross. And what I’ve learned is that stagnant water attracts mosquitos and other pests that suck the life out of you.
This time last year, my husband was also gone for a few weeks. But instead of cultivating new hobbies or anything that would refresh my metaphorical lake, I sat at home, alone, and built up resentment. Which attracted mosquitos – those pesky thoughts and triggers that you try to ignore, but once they bite you, and you itch a little bit, it becomes the only thing you can think about. And then I relapsed.
This obviously doesn’t apply to everyone, but I encourage those who may feel like they’re stagnant in their recovery to find SOMETHING, no matter how obscure or impractical, to refresh your lake. Redecorating a room, finding a new series to binge, teaching your dog a new trick – it can be ANYTHING you want besides your drug of choice. But make sure it repels those little fuckers.
Time Takes Time
When I first head this phrase in the rooms, my first reaction was, “no shit.”
But the way it’s been interpreted lately is this – your life is going to pass by regardless of what you do, how you do it, and who you do it with. If you want to put in the work for recovery, collect that coveted one year chip, write that book, whatever it is…you need to make friends with time.
Time and I have a complicated relationship, to say the least. For most of my drinking life, the blackouts and shenanigans kept me stuck in the past. My hangover days were 90% being anxious about the night before and establishing damage control. The thought of waking up on a weekend and moving forward with my life with no repercussions of the night before was unheard of. It almost became this sick habit to blame not being in the present moment on whatever fuckup of the week was going on.
Getting sober means being present. And that means that time might go by a whole lot slower than you’re used to. And then you get that crawling feeling in your skin just waiting for something to happen and oh no you’re bored and ugh why did you start this and WHEN DOES IT GET BETTER? It does. It just takes, say it with me, time. They really have something going for them whenever they say that “one day at a time” phrase. We’re not fortune tellers, or mind readers. I can’t tell you if I’ll ever pick up a drink again, because that’s out of my control right now. What I CAN tell you is that I will not pick up a drink today. And that’s good enough.
So there you have it. My first year of being honest-to-God, stone cold sober – the abridged version, at least. To be honest, I’m grateful that I didn’t learn a whole much and become a spontaneously enlightened Buddha in the first year. That means that this journey still has a shit ton of promise and growth. It saved my life. And if you’re reading this, feeling a twinge in your heart, maybe this whole “recovery” thing can benefit yours as well.