Recently I have been reading an AA friend’s first draft for a book on the process of recovery, and how she experienced AA to get sober. This made me realize that I had never written down “my story,” although I’ve told it in bits and pieces at many, many meetings and in many, many variations. So I decided that perhaps I should get it down in writing, for posterity, to go with all the other “how I got sober” stories out there. So here goes:
One of my earliest memories–not THE earliest, but the earliest scary memory–is of being in the car with my little sisters while my mother is trying to get the car keys from my drunken father so she can take us all away. My youngest sister was just a baby, so I must have been about 6. I have no memory of returning home, but I think my father came to the friend’s house the next day, remorseful, and we all came back. She never did that again, but we spent many insecure days and nights dealing with my father’s alcoholism. He was never violent–he was a gentle, sweet man, and everyone loved him–and up until the end of his drinking, he always had a job, but there were arrests and some dangerous behaviors. Meanwhile, my mother was hysterical a lot of the time, and we all just figured out ways to get away from home as soon as we could. It wasn’t until I was in detox and saw a film about Adult Children of Alcoholics that I fell apart, realizing how dysfunctional my family had been–as children, it’s the only world you know, so you think it’s normal.
I buried myself in school–I figured if I was good in school, they really couldn’t complain about me. I went away to college, willful, certain that I wouldn’t be like either of them. I really didn’t drink much at all in college–I was an egghead and a priss until I finally discovered sex when I was 20, in the Woodstock summer, when anything went, and I tried it all. A year in Europe was my great revelation–everybody drank wine there, I had my first real relationship, and I came back from that year quite the sophisticate, radicalized politically, and cured of my prissiness for good. While everyone else was doing dope, I became a drinker. I lived with a guy for a year who was a chef–and an alcoholic. I was going to “change” him, but of course, the only thing that happened was he taught me how to drink in bars. Despite a few rather promiscuous years, I was still working hard at academics–got a professional degree, got married, and began the life of a gypsy scholar. We both drank, but it was still fun. Lots of parties, lots of great dinner fetes with wine, good stuff.
I can still remember the first time I had a blackout–at a friends’ house where we were staying in Washington D.C. After a night of vivacious conversation, I couldn’t remember what we had talked about or how we had gotten home. I repeated the same questions I had asked the night before, and people were perplexed that I didn’t remember what we had all laughed about. I was perplexed, too. A few years later, when I was pregnant, I didn’t drink for that period, and had no problems with not drinking. But pretty soon I was back to a routine that would be my pattern for several years: a few Scotches after work, then wine or maybe more hard stuff until we went to bed. By the time I had completed my Ph.D., we were living in New Orleans, and my father died–quite unexpectedly, only 57, after being sober for ten years. This was the beginning of a three-year period of deaths, deaths, deaths: My father, my grandmother, my mother, and many, many friends from cancer and AIDS. We had by this time moved to Wisconsin, where I taught at Lawrence University–in a small town, with not much else to do beside the college. It was about this time, I now know in retrospect, that I crossed some line from heavy drinker to alcoholic. I was still able to function and be quite productive–I wrote all my lectures for all my classes, we were happily raising a kid. But it was about this time that the report came out on what constituted “moderate drinking”, asserting that no more than 2 drinks a night was OK. I remember being in a state of shock and dismay by that statement–I had never, ever had only two drinks at a time in my entire drinking life. I began to try to control the drinking–and found it nearly impossible to do. If I started to drink, I wouldn’t stop until I was very far gone–and I started to have blackouts all the time.
In the summer of 1987, I went to Germany for a month of research, with very little money and on my own and lonely. I found myself thinking of ways I could find more liquor, and began carrying a flask of Scotch with me. I already knew this was not a good sign at all, but I dismissed my concerns with all the excuses that all high-functioning alkies use–I still had my job, I still had my family, I had never been arrested, no DUIs, etc., etc. But I was starting to be so hung over most days that I was depressed and in bad moods. Only booze would help that! I began when in my cups to make phone calls around the world–and not remembering what I had said in the morning. A real big case of telephonitis! I spent my 40th birthday in a hotel room in Washington D.C. (I was at a conference) and proceeded to drink the mini bar dry–then had to explain my expenses to the dean when I returned to the college. Ooops.
No one ever said anything to me about my drinking–no one. I started myself to seek out those people I knew who were recovering alcoholics, to listen to their stories, but still afraid to admit to myself that I had to do something about how much I drank. I thought about it all the time. I think I even mentioned to people that I was drinking too much. I finally went to a counselor–the first thing I said was “I don’t want to go to AA!” Now what person who doesn’t have a drinking problem thinks that way?? This counselor, who was herself a recovering alcoholic, was very kind–she put me into a group therapy session, filled with other people like me who obviously had substance abuse problems but wouldn’t go to AA. I lasted a few sessions, and gave up. I also tried controlled drinking again, but this just led to elaborate self-deceits: I decided that we couldn’t have liquor in the house, but it was OK to drink if we were on trips. So I would come up with the most absurd excuses to take a trip somewhere–and head IMMEDIATELY to a bar, where I would have that craving sated at last. I also tried the “marijuana cure”–a joint would be alright, wouldn’t it? But that just made me want to drink all the more. So controlled drinking went by the wayside, as it inevitably does with any alcoholic. I was licked, but it took many more years of this exhausting cycle before I finally gave in.
In 1990, I did what I now see was on one level a gigantic “geographical” –the term we use in AA to describe the belief that if you just move to another place, all your woes will be over. We moved to Australia! I got a position at a major university, and the whole family up and left the country for our new life. Academe is the perfect place for a practicing alcoholic to continue practicing: as long as you can pitch up to that podium and give your lectures, and you turn your grades in on time, no one really cares what you do. And what a place Australia is for drinkers! By this time, I was having blackouts nearly every night. Early in our time in Australia, I decided to go to an alcohol counselor–if I could just figure out the trick, the catch, and control all the drama in my life, I thought everything would be fine. The counselor was a very nice man–he became our friend–but I just wasn’t yet ready to give it up. At one point, when we had decided that I would give up the grog the next week, I arrived to tell him that my sister was coming to visit, so I couldn’t possibly stop drinking then! And what if I won the lottery and they came to my house with a bottle of champagne? I actually said that.
So it continued. I was starting to have physical effects of all that booze: I had a colonoscopy and gastroscopy because of intestinal pains, I had gastric erosions, I looked awful, and at one point I taught all my classes wearing sunglasses because my eyes were so swollen and red. I never went anywhere at night–including parent-teacher conferences–because I knew I would be drunk. At one point I checked myself into a “safe house” for addicts and alcoholics–only to leave after two hours because the people scared me so much. I immediately went out and bought a bottle of wine. Our garage was filled with empty bottles because I didn’t want the neighbors to notice all the empties in the garbage bins.
Finally, after two disastrous Christmases that I couldn’t remember because I was in blackout, I knew it was just not going to get any better. I waited until my son was out of the country visiting his grandfather back in the States, and I wasn’t teaching. I thought I could make a reservation at the detoxification unit of the local hospital–like it was a spa. But I checked myself in on a Sunday–having gone out the night before on “the good stuff,” just to make sure I was good and miserable when the nurse took down all my information. And so my husband left me there, a baffled, confused mess. All I had to read was the Big Book and my diary, in which I wrote, “How did this happen? How did I get to this point?” I was still amazed that this is where I’d come–a hospital detoxification unit.