On Turning 18

Today, I celebrate eighteen years of continuous sobriety. I toyed with the idea of posting something coy on Facebook as I’ve done in the past (and may yet do today). “Eighteen,” I might write. Or just the mysterious Roman numerals: “XVIII.” But what I really want to do is shout it from the rooftops, although this is generally not done in my circles – or perhaps I should say, outside of my circles – where anonymity is key.

I am a person who got sober, and stays sober today, with the help of a highly anonymous 12-step program. I’m probably not even supposed to say that much, but I’m starting to wonder about the value of anonymity in some instances. I’m not the least bit ashamed about being an alcoholic anymore, and definitely not about being in recovery. I know when I mention it casually, it can make other people uncomfortable. I don’t know how to mitigate or navigate that. I have the life I have today because I’m sober. For some reason, that can be hard for other people to reconcile.

I want to talk about my recovery. I want to tell you about my experiences, and my frustrations. For example: the biggest fallacy about 12-step recovery is that we are a bunch of feeble-minded weaklings sitting around, chanting prayers, waiting for Jesus’ guidance before we know to scratch our asses. (Although in fairness, there is the chanting of prayers, although both participating and believing are entirely optional.)

It’s painful to me how far this notion is from the truth of how the program works. And it’s frustrating that I cannot show this to the rest of the people, make them understand what it’s really like – the community, the commitment to living the examined life, the mere fact of people showing up of their own free will just to help and support other people. I don’t have that in any other area of my life. I’ve never known anything like it. These people are my second family, and if that makes us a cult, I guess I’m in.

Then, of course, I am left only with the option to accept that other people don’t need to understand this. They don’t need to know how I spend my Saturday mornings and my Wednesday evenings. It’s not about them. It is not theirs. I shouldn’t need them to get it.

Oh, but part of me still wants them to. Because I don’t really know how you know me if you don’t know this.

But then if I were to try to summarize what sobriety is and what it’s given me, I can’t begin to lay bare that giant iceberg. I can, however, give you a glimpse of how my mind works today, which is in complete contrast to the shaking, terrified mind I had when I stopped drinking at the age of 25.

Take this year, for example. I am tempted to say that this was a terrible year, one of the worst – partly because I’m given to generalizations, to short-handing pain. It is true that losing my father to a debilitating illness – a decade after my mother’s sudden death – was a devastation of indescribable proportions. The fact that I encountered orphan-hood at 43 just as I was coming to terms with my infertility seemed like the most horrible existential double hitter.

Yet, despite all that, I can – and do – look at my life and reflect on the past year with awe and deep, heartfelt gratitude. I can marvel at this life, at this man I’ve been given as a partner, at the laughter and love we share. I can find genuine gratitude, all the way down to my knees, for the luxuries like getting to take a nice vacation and the, well, luxuries like having a roof over my head and running water.

This may be obvious to you, but it wasn’t to me. Gratitude was not my default setting. I learned that in sobriety. People – lovely and sometimes crazy and frustrating people – showed up at tables and in church basements and were generous with themselves beyond reckoning, filling rooms with their painful truths and leading by example. That’s how I learned to be grateful.

It’s also how I learned to forgive myself and others. It’s how I learned to suit up and show up, to apologize when wrong, and to try to make things right. Maybe you were born knowing how to do all of that – how to be a human – but I wasn’t. I had to learn it.

And these people did that for me.

Can you even imagine?

My 25-year-old self was certain that the end of drinking meant the end of having a life – which is deeply ironic, considering I had very little resembling a life when I got sober. If she could see me now, she’d likely be appalled. I’m not living in a big city, a celebrated best-selling writer with a badass husband who plays drums in a rock band. I’m living in a small town, a quiet writer with a badass husband who occasionally plays drums in a folk-rock band. It is a more peaceful life than I ever imagined for myself and for that, as you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m unspeakably grateful.

How on earth did I get here? I learned pretty quickly that the biggest change in recovery is not quitting using. That is, as one friend puts it, just stopping the bleeding. The real work comes after that as you try to piece your life back together again, figure out who you are and decide what you want to be. The changes are often tiny and happen at a glacial pace. Getting sober doesn’t mean your life becomes amazing right away or, sometimes, ever. That can be devastating news for newcomers. That can be enough to send them scurrying away.

But here is what I will say about me 18 years ago versus me today, as I sit at my desk writing this: sobriety has made me more comfortable with my flaws. I don’t know that I’m a less-flawed person than I was 18 years ago. (I mean, I certainly hope so, but who am I to judge?) It may be that I’m just differently flawed. I suppose what I’m trying to say – and this is radical for me – is that I’m getting closer to accepting my humanity. I don’t (often) expect perfection from myself these days. I understand that I will make mistakes and when I’m done making them, I’ll make some more. That no longer seems like a devastating condition to me. It no longer seems like a deal-breaker. I feel modestly equipped for life – although that feeling slips away in the darkest hours. I can rest comfortably, at least for a little while, in my skin.

For some people – maybe you – that may seem like the smallest of things, the most obvious condition. For others, like me, it’s everything.

And it only took me 18 years.

Written with sincere and abiding love and gratitude for all of you who held me up on this journey, especially this year. You know who you are.