My friend Margaret says that for her the three stages of drinking went like this: Magic - Medicine - Misery. It was exactly the same for me. Especially the magic phase of my early drinking. Margaret shared in a meeting recently that one of the first times she caught a buzz she had to go and look at herself in the mirror. The profound internal shift that she experienced while drinking felt so transformative that she was 100 percent sure that the changes must be visible on the outside as well. I know that feeling. In my teenage years and early twenties I would drink and feel floaty, sparkly, free. Lit from within by some energetic golden light. I could feel it and I was sure that others could see it. This imagined charismatic glow just pouring out of my eyes. I do miss it at times. That "I'm on top of the world" buzziness. But I have learned the hard way that getting to that magical state with alcohol was easy enough; staying there, for any length of time, became pretty much impossible.
I remember my first drink vividly. I was in the tall grass of some dunes on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. It was a perfect afternoon in July. Not too hot, clean breeze from the ocean, the sea shimmering in the distance. One of my friends had procured a warm ancient-looking Budweiser. We must have been about 13 years old so I'm not sure where my friend got the beer but she looked like she was 20, so I think that was the ticket. We hunkered down with our one can of beer and our cigarettes. We were smoking expertly that summer (after months of practice) and we joyfully smoked, sipped our beer, and laughed at our audacity. I didn't get drunk that day but I did feel elated, victorious. I had peeked behind the mysterious veil of alcohol consumption and I liked what I saw there.
The first time I got really drunk should have been a red flag but of course it was not. This time I was 14, and instead of a measly can of warm beer we stole a whole bottle of booze from my friend Jane's parents’ liquor cabinet. We wanted to take something that wouldn't be missed so she reached into the back and pulled out an almost full bottle of Martini and Rossi extra dry vermouth.
We scurried up the narrow flights of stairs to her third floor bedroom, giggling like the children we were, thrilled that we had pulled this off. We had no idea what we were doing. We put on some music and started to drink, going in a circle, using the same glass, drinking the warm vermouth. We did this for about an hour. Until the dusty green bottle was pretty much empty and we were all completely sloshed. And that's when the shit hit the fan. For my two friends anyway. Something about the alcohol triggered some deep trauma for Jane and she became hysterical, curled up in a fetal ball on the floor rocking back and forth and sobbing. My other friend Georgia, also completely shitfaced but very concerned about Jane, was hyperventilating and crying, begging me to go with her to wake up Jane's parents or call 911.
I watched this whole scene unfold, unperturbed, from a comfortably numb distance. Almost as if I was watching a movie. I loved both Jane and Georgia, we had been friends since kindergarten and they were like sisters to me. But oddly, I felt almost nothing seeing their acute distress. I didn't care about anything. I was lost in this glorious feeling that I was being held like a baby. Comforted and rocked into bliss by the alcohol dancing through my blood stream. I remember feeling very amused. The world had always felt eggshelly to me, fragile and unstable, unpredictable and scary. But that first time I got drunk I felt absolutely relaxed and at peace. The world felt solid, secure. I told Jane and Georgia to calm down, that everything was going to be fine, and then I must have passed out. I awoke around six a.m. feeling marvelous. The small room was trashed, Jane was still curled up on the floor shivering under a blanket and Georgia was cleaning vomit off of the bathroom floor. But I felt fine. I had found something that could relax me. It was a miracle. And alcohol was able to pretty predictably relax me for the next 13 years. That was the magic.
Suddenly in my late twenties it became clear that I was losing control over what, when, where and how much I would drink. I set rules for myself only to break them the next week, or even the next day. Only wine or beer, only between 7 and 10 p.m., never on a Sunday, NO VODKA, only every other day, a full glass of water between each drink, no gin, only wine, only by myself after 6 p.m., never on holidays, only on holidays, every day is a holiday and then finally “Eh, fuck it, just give me a drink”. So as an alcoholic I started creating these little rules, these standards, and instead of living up to them, I would slowly lower them, dramatically, over time. Settling into a life of low expectations for myself and others and the world. For me the first step into my addiction was when I gave in to the fuck-its. Eh, fuck it, I can drink every day if I want to. Eh, fuck it, I'll just fill up this Poland Spring bottle with vodka so I'll be "covered". Eh, fuck it, I'll just carry it around with me everywhere, including into my yoga classes. And there the bottle would sit, on the edge of my yoga mat, glaring at me like a chastising schoolmarm while I bent and twisted myself through a grueling ashtanga class. My reward? Small surreptitious sips before, during and after the class. That was the medicine phase.
And then the misery. All addicts will know the misery of not having a choice of using or not using. Of drinking or not drinking. Of the shame and remorse and self-loathing misery of addiction. Of the feeling of insanity when you tell yourself you won't drink and before you know it the alcohol is being poured down your throat by your own hand. It's a surreal feeling, that. A terrifying feeling. In the grips of addiction I was afraid that the same voice that was having me drink against my will could also have me slice my wrists or jump off a tall building. I became intensely ashamed and also quite terrified. Disgusted by and terrified of myself. The misery of that memory is almost indescribable.
So my illustrious drinking career followed the same sequence as Margaret's and that of many other friends in recovery as well. And now we have come full circle. Back to the magic. The magic of finding a way to live in gratitude for this human experience without drugs and alcohol. Of connecting with others and the world without being nervous and afraid all the time. Of feeling part of as opposed to apart from. And the medicine? I find that in the program of A.A., the meetings, the steps, the fellowship and the literature. And the misery?
I don't really miss it at all.