Today marks my 400 days w/o alcohol. In the grand scheme of all that has happened in 2020, that’s spilling over into 2021, this feels so small and insignificant. What’s kind of funny-not-funny is that when I joined the live version of Annie Grace’s Alcohol Experiment in January of 2020, that was exactly my #1 reason: to make alcohol small and insignificant in my life. The reverberating energy of each of the 2000+ people who joined me in the experiment a year and some odd days ago, is permanently infused into every one of my trillions of cells, and frankly, I think that’s a pretty BFD.
I can say with full confidence that if you had asked me on January 31, 2020 if I could make it a year w/o booze, I would have given a definite, hearty, noncommittal, “mmmmm—did you say a WHOLE YEAR??!! Like, 365 days? In a row?! Lemme think about that…” If you would have had the magical foresight to also tell me that we’d be thrust ass-over-teakettle into a devastating pandemic wrapped around a righteous revolution against racism that began in my beloved Minneapolis after the brutal murder of George Floyd, set aflame by a domestic terrorist attack on our nation’s capitol, and that along the way, I’d lose both sources of income which would force me into unemployment limbo for several months, scrambling to cobble together an online existence of sorts, and the disintegration of a five-year relationship, I would have said, “Nope, not this year, I’m good, thanks!” and instead, swung by the liquor store to pick up my usual coping strategies in crisis and got the hell out of here.
I did not plan to be AF for a year, certainly not in a year of epic global crises endless layers deep—that’s when I do my best drinking, in crisis. 30 days was the best I could commit to a year ago January, it’s the best I can commit to today. But, it turns out, it’s enough. I’m not a planner—anything more than that sends me into an anxiety tailspin, so in a strange way, this has worked out in my unplanner-self’s favor. Every month, I renegotiate with myself—another 30 days? Lemme think about it…because for me, it’s not just another 30 days without alcohol; it’s another 30 days of digging in a little deeper, and shit gets a little messier, dealing with whatever new thing that rises to the surface, old beliefs, old habits that need to be acknowledge, dismantled and reconfigured to a kinder, gentler, more expansive way of being, which reminds me of that time shortly after Bob died, when I disassembled our leaking freezer because I couldn’t find a repair person willing to take on the job, and all the freezer’s guts were spread out in a jumbled mess across the kitchen and I looked around in horror wondering WTlivingF did I just do here? I eventually, painstakingly put it back together—I fixed the leak, too!—with only one mystery screw leftover. But oh, how I digress.
Digging deeper is hard, but it isn’t always akin to punishment, sometimes it yields surprising gifts, like reconnecting with nature, hugging some trees (you should see the massive, powerful, gorgeous Medusa-as-cottonwoods protecting my still-new-to-me neighborhood! I can barely even stand how joyful I feel when I wrap my arms around their gigantic waists and I kiss their deeply wrinkled skin and I know that one of these days, someone in my neighborhood is going to report the weirdo kissing treehugger, which is why I tend to do it at night, under moonlight) sometimes it’s being more physical with my body (breathing is a thing I should think about? Or my shoulder blades? Some days, I have no clue what’s going on back there behind me, or inside of me, or beneath my feet, and those are the times, I’m learning, when I need to slow down, take notice and breathe, feel, inhabit…which is not just hard but sometimes downright excruciating for someone who’s internal switch is set to “run!”), sometimes it’s journaling like a mofo, you can see smoke billowing under my pen tip as it skips and skitters across the page. Sometimes it’s support groups. Other times reading a book about Medusa or carpenter ants, or signing up for an online seminar on systemic racism, or watching a menagerie of bellydancers shake their groove thang on Zoom or taking a walk in the woods with one of my sisters, or a neighbor who also happens to be my ex, to use profane, pedestrian vernacular that tastes bitter in my mouth, an insult to the five years we were together, but a more apt word doesn’t exist (trust me, I googled it) which means I might have to make one up, or a zoom session with a client that leads to a deep discussion about the pelvis, or feet or seeming harmless societal beliefs about bodies that have done more harm than anyone will probably ever know except those bodies to whom the damage has been done. This month, I am hoping to add one-to-one therapy, which I haven’t yet done, curiously (pandemic, is the short answer). Another 30 days, collecting data points on things I want to know—can I do all the things I used to do while drinking, but without drinking? Turns out, I can. Who knew it was even possible? Or how hard it can be, given the circumstances, or how strange it is, when you discover there are some things you really don’t like doing at all; alcohol just made them more tolerable.
So far, after every 30 days, I’ve said, “Yes, please. I want more,” so I keep going. Which is the most ridiculously simplified way to say that this past year has been simultaneously the easiest and the most tumultuous year of my life, pandemic and revolution and insurrection notwithstanding. I’ve collected enough data on both sides of the debate to confidently say that overusing alcohol in crisis sucks, and being alcohol free in crisis also sucks, but for profoundly different reasons, and it’s becoming more and more clear to me why I drank during crisis in the first place. There’s a sacred kind of grace and grief in confronting that truth—we only know what we know at the time, and we do the best we can until we know more, until we have more tools to help us.
Alcohol is a powerful anesthesia, that’s its literal job. It did a bang-up job numbing me not only from pain of various crises in the past 10 years or so of my life, but also from the day-to-day life, just as it is; it held me back from handling everyday life in more nourishing, mindful ways, but I didn’t even consider it as a hindrance, because I didn’t know any other way. And I’m also learning, at the same time, it also numbed me to the joys and wonder and contentment and humor and ease of life; it’s funny, what we’ll settle for as substitutes when we don’t know much better or simply different, it can really be…the “feeling all the feels” of life can be skin-crawlingly intensely sensory overload for some of us, though; layer in crisis and/or trauma on top, and sometimes life becomes too much to bear. Drinking is just one of endless ways to mitigate the intensity when nothing else is available; there is a strange grace in finding an even stranger truth: that the very thing that could possibly, eventually kill you, is the same thing that for a moment in time, is keeping you alive.
It wasn’t always like that for me; for years, drinking was fun! Mostly… it was normal! Mostly…meaning, it’d start out fun, like the first drink or two, and then quickly slide into not-so-fun. Not necessarily bad, just that instead of connecting, I’d suddenly feel disembodied, severed from not only the people I was with, but from something deeper in me. I mean, I’ve certainly had my share of fun while drinking, I never stood out as a “problem drinker” among friends, I’ve never been the one who has to get carried out from the bar or…but…was it really fun? Or normal? Or was I convincing telling myself that and playing along, because it’s the dominant belief? Just because we say something, does it make it true?
My “normal” drinking escalated into problem territory with my husband’s cancer and subsequent death in 2011, but my baseline “normal” has never been normal, or maybe it always has been, when stacked up against the rest of the world. Drinking, in my world, has been dysfunctional from the get-go—it’s a variation on the theme of running, which is another form of numbing—when dysfunctional is literally what everyone else is doing, it’s hard to see it as anything but normal. But I swear, my heart as always know this truth. As a teenager, it was “drink to get drunk!” because that’s what the adult drinkers in my life did and we kids couldn’t wait to get in on that brand of fun; in college, more of the same, only now it was legal. When I got married, my husband worked in the wine industry, I simply swapped college keggers and bar hopping for the more refined versions of “wine tastings,” microbrew festivals, whiskey flights, and now I had language and grown up culture to support ad at the same time camouflage my habit—red wine is healthy! Whisky makes this chick badass! Everything in moderation—even my doctor agrees! Wine with yoga! Beer after fun runs! Wine themed baby showers—bring wine to the new mom in the hospital, we gotta get her back on track with us again! Drink to celebrate, drink to mourn, drink on vacation, because work is stressful, because I got a promotion, because it’s Friday, because Hump Day…as prevalent as drinking was in my life then, it was always within the context of what other people were doing. Binge drinking is an acceptable norm in our culture, I did not stand out better or worse than anyone else in my life. Which means when I finally started questioning it, I ran into unexpected obstacles along the way, which was a big factor in me not doing anything sooner. External voices can easily drown out the quiet voice of our heart.
I never thought to drink alone, not even in college, not until my husband got sick. Overnight, our world turned into a living nightmare, I suddenly became full-time caregiver and health care advocate for my best friend, who used to be the healthiest, most take-charge person I knew, who fast became the sickest person I will likely, so intimately know, who would endure gruesome cancer treatments, the stuff of nightmares, that eventually killed him and nearly did me in, too. During his ordeal, colleagues sent us cases of wine, beer, spirits, well-meaning, of course, but Bob couldn’t drink, so I wryly joked that I was now drinking for two, the truth of that punchline breaks my heart today.
Drinking is normalized, expected, in the grieving world, in the widow world, as it is in mommy culture, as it is in the health and wellness world, as it is in writing circles. I watched with strange fascination this summer as a celebrated author got hammered on Twitter and the entire world cheered her on. I was simultaneously as entertained as anyone but at the same time, filled with a sense of FOMO (fear of missing out), thinking “shit, now I’ve become reigning sanctimonious Queen of Dullsville,” a super-common phenomenon, FOMO, so strong a force, it has the power to dethrone even the best efforts.
None of this is to say that I didn’t accomplish much other than drink a lot in the wake of Bob’s death, or that I drank only to drown sorrows, or that I was falling down drunk all the time. There’s tremendous mythology around alcohol and addiction that I feel keeps a lot of people stuck and prevents people from doing anything sooner, it sure as hell did me. If you’re not of the epic variety, then you’re not “that bad,” you’re fine, you’re like everyone else, there’s no problem here folks, move along please. There is no hard line to gauge alcohol addiction, no confirming blood test, no MRI or CT scan. What if “not that bad” is, for a lot of people, actually pretty bad? I’m astounded at all I did in the wake of Bob’s death, in spite of drinking far more than I ever have at any point in my life. I started a new career as a Pilates and restorative movement facilitator, I went to grad school and earned my MFA in creative writing, I traveled, I dated (kind of), my first published essay was nominated for a Pushcart, I was awarded writing grants and scholarships, but I also grieve for so many lost opportunities while living behind such a thin but immobilizing veil. If I didn’t have a bad case of impostor syndrome already, it surely settled in deep into my cells soon enough. I presented myself to the world the picture of health and wellness, an emerging writer, a “successful widow!” rebuilding her life after devastation, the bigger, messier picture behind thin veneer. The tension of such dissonance has a shelf life, it can only be sustained for so long.
I was awarded a Minnesota state Arts Board Grant for 2018, the same year I was about to graduate from Hamline. I almost didn’t complete both the Arts Board project or my thesis. I write almost exclusively about very difficult topics—death, cancer, being a caregiver, a widow—what I didn’t realize is that every time I went to write a story, I had to relive the gruesome story of my husband’s cancer and death againandagainandagainandagain. Repeatedly traumatize myself for the sake of what? Art? At the sake of what? My sanity. At the time, I did not know that I should have been doing something intentional,something compassionate and mindful, to protect myself from this repeated thrashing as I wrote. Something like tandem therapy, perhaps. I didn’t know that. Instead, I continued to write and continued to thrash. The body can only withstand that kind of instability for so long before something has to happen, something breaks. In my case, my writing came to a screeching standstill, my keyboard wouldn’t budge. At the time, I thought I was cursed; today, I think it was my heart finally stepping in and telling my head, enough. Enough. I read somewhere once that our souls love us so much, it will use our bodies to get our attention. I fully believe my sudden drought of words was one such instances. Strange grace.
That same year, around Thanksgiving, I sat in my mom’s living room and told her I thought I had a drinking problem. She looked at me, startled, before saying, “YOU, have a drinking problem? Well, if that’s the case, Jen, then everyone I know has a drinking problem,” and that was the moment I was sharply cleaved in two. One half of me breathed a sigh of relief. “If my mom, who knows me better than anyone in the world, doesn’t think I have a problem, then there’s no problem—I don’t have to change a thing!” The other half, a little more meek, sort of whimpered, “If my mom, who knows me better than anyone in the world doesn’t think I have a problem, then maybe that’s the problem.” I knew, deep in my cells, that if I was going to do something about it, for real, it was going to require a lot more work than I could even fathom. Did I have it in me? Did I even want to?
I started going to 12 step meetings, because that’s what you do when you think you have a drinking problem, right? As I sat in the shadowy church sanctuary on the east side of St. Paul, in the shadowy community room of an apartment building in south Minneapolis, I listened as everyone went around the room sharing stories of disaster and destruction and praying for strength to not mess up the family holidays this year, it came my turn. “Don’t worry Jen, we’ve heard it all, we know how it is…” I stared at my hands in my lap, tears dropped onto my sleeves. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t have any stories of disaster and destruction. Once again I was bluntly cleaved—one part was immensely relieved. “Thank god, I’m not that bad—I don’t belong here. I’m fine.” The other side quietly asked, “Is that how it works? That I have to collect such stories before I can find the help I seek? All I have is an incessant, gnawing decaying sensation in my tissues, like I’m slowly dying from the inside out, and I don’t even care. Isn’t that enough?
A month or so after that conversation with my mom, she died unexpectedly after the world’s shortest bout of cancer; I have a hard time even saying she had cancer, it happened so fast. For as gruesome and profane as my husband’s death was, my mom’s was something of the divine, the holy. What cancer took from him, it gave to her ten-fold—it was like my quiet, unassuming mom was directing the final scene of her own life, telling her medical team she wanted no heroics, quality, not quantity of life was her wish. Two days later, as we were waiting for discharge orders to bring her home for hospice, she fluttered for a few moments (which were probably more like few hours, but my mind sees it in time lapse), then died, encircled by all five of her kids. We toasted her memory any chance we got over the next year—it’s what she would have wanted, right? Until I couldn’t lift another glass because that inner decaying was now slowly eating and blistering through to the surface of my skin.
I finally said, enough, and I started going to therapy, though I still didn’t say “alcohol is kind of a problem here. I know, deep in my cells, it’s why I can’t sleep, I know it’s why I don’t care about anything anymore, why I can’t write, I know it’s why I am stuck. stuck. stuck.” Instead, I spoke in code, using words like “disconnected, lack of community, isolated, so alone” repeated over and over in my sessions. Never once, did my therapist ask pointedly about alcohol in my life. The blistering became more intense, anything that bumped against me burned raw, I clawed at my skin, wanting so desperately to tear it from my body, and begin anew.
It would take another several months to stumble upon the AE after another few disappointing 12 step meetings, after a handful more fruitless therapy sessions. I don’t mean to disparage the 12 step programs, or therapy—if I could find a group like what Veronica Valli, founder of Soberful and a powerful 12-step advocate, describes, I’d be all for it—but like finding a good therapist, they are hard to come by; the effort is daunting and exhausting, and sometimes it’s easier to just stay in place than move.
But. BUT. long story even longer (this is why I don’t post much; I have so much to say, half of me says, “oh shut up, no one cares,” but the other part says, “say it, say it, say it!” and once I begin it’s so hard to stop, it’s like these words have been building up inside of me since before I was born…), really, all of this is to say that when I began a little experiment a year and some odd days ago, my only goal was for alcohol to become small and insignificant in my life, as it had gotten too large and in charge, and stayed that way for too long. To say that I got more than I bargained for is a gross understatement, and yes, at the end of January, 20201 I said, “Yes more please, to another 30 days.” I read somewhere recently that the decision to be sober is not about deciding not to drink, but rather, learning to live a life that I don’t have to numb myself from. Far easier said than done, I’m fully aware, but at 400 days, I am also fully aware that that a bad day AF is still infinitely better than any good day with alcohol, hands down. Today, that’s more than good enough for me. 30 more days, please. xo.