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Stream of Consciousness
By Sarah Cassidy
I am 22 years old, I am sober, and I plan on keeping it that way.
I celebrated the New Year at a punk show, surrounded by leather jackets, sweat and cigarette smoke. I felt anxious and lonely surrounded by happy people, because I did not have what they had. In a moment, I could make a decision that would turn my night from a social anxiety induced nightmare to a soaring high. In a moment, everything could change, and no one would hold it against me. In just a moment, I could be free. The world spun around me. I looked down at my feet. I counted my breaths.
Someone handed me a free plastic ramekin full of tequila, in lieu of champagne.
“No thanks, I’m not drinking.”
Unless you count drool.
“C’mon it’s free!”
“I’m really trying to be sober.”
My wonderful sister picked up the phone as I rushed home from the show later that night.
“I think I’m doing the right thing. I think this is going to make a difference. I think I’m really doing this.”
I couldn’t believe my words, but there I was, and two months later, here I am.
I turned 21 at Timberline Knolls, a rehab center near Chicago graced by the likes of Demi Lovato and Kesha. And from then until that fated new year’s, I hadn’t managed to stay sober for more than three days. It was a vicious shame cycle. I would tell myself it was just one drink, and one drink turned into a marathon binge drinking night. I would trigger mood swings and past traumas, spill my secrets to strangers, get suicidal, make out with someone I shouldn’t, show up throwing up in someone who hated me’s front yard while they yelled at me, destroy friendships.
In the morning, as I nursed my hangover, I would gawk at the emptiness of my life. I didn’t believe in my talent, my intelligence or my dreams. I was barely scraping by. My living space looked like a rat’s nest. I didn’t trust or even like many of my friends, if I could call them that. I tended to not have time for the good ones, and I especially didn’t have it in me to be a good friend to anyone. But then, I would get off work, and shift drinks were waiting for me, and I knew exactly what to order to get as many shots out of this arrangement as possible. Or I would not be able to stand my feelings anymore at home, but make a trip to the 7/11 across the street to pick up a box of PBR. My weed guy was in walking distance. I was set. Whether I was drinking to create experiences with others that lasted one night before I woke up in the morning, to the reality of the lack of real friends in my life, or smoking weed in the bathtub while gorging on food I ordered that I couldn’t afford, I had it down. I could numb and medicate myself to oblivion, and I had perfected it to a science.
Turning 21 in rehab should have been a wakeup call enough to the outsider, but I still had reservations about my substance “problem” in rehab. Sure, I had spent the summer before rehab on a cocktail of Adderall, Xanax, weed and alcohol I stole from my friends in water bottles, downing enough to kill myself at night, waking up in the morning contemplating walking off a bridge instead of walking to work, but settling for a new drug cocktail. Sure, that summer before rehab, I wrote in my journal that I needed a drug to manufacture energy and feelings for myself, because I had nothing real left anymore in me to give. I could not feel sadness, pain, joy. I could not get out of bed. I needed drugs to do that. I needed drugs for everything. But, me? A problem? No.
I spent my time at rehab focusing on my other issues. Because, in truth, I believe that addiction is a symptom more than it is a problem. I had past trauma and PTSD to grapple with, as well as a nasty eating disorder I was recovering from, and I was content to work through those things while putting my substance problems aside. I was very good at getting my therapists to believe that perhaps I had stopped a possible substance problem from ever developing. In rehab, I was sober, and went to meetings, in order to go along with the program, but not on my own accord. I sometimes thought sobriety and 12-step programs were for me, and I sometimes didn’t. I had more of a desire for an easy answer than I did for anything else, and sometimes it felt like 12-step programs provided that. In truth, there is no easy answer, and I still had no idea how to classify my past run-ins with substances.
The moment I was able to get out of rehab for a solo day trip to Chicago, I secretly got drunk. The secret was a part of the high. And when I moved to New York City to go to an outpatient rehab program in order to balance work and a life with treatment without my familiar triggers in Richmond, I was horrified that the program focused mainly on addiction, and barely at all on trauma and eating disorders. I left the program, left therapy all together, and then began my bar hopping party life in New York balanced with barely scraping by at my job.
It’s easy to look back on that life and glamorize it, even the scary parts, and especially the scary parts. Living in New York was extremely fun, and I can’t pretend that it wasn’t. “I did coke in a Brooklyn dive bar bathroom with a man I had met that night and his coke dealer” sounds like a story of being young and wild and free, not a cry for help.
After moving from New York back to Richmond due to financial reasons and falling into a life of cheap rent and shift drinks, the high was over. I would get terrified of my behavior and my substance abuse quite often. I would see my life fall apart, time and time again, and feel the extent of my loneliness, emptiness and lack of direction, and decide it was time to get sober, once and for all! My record in 2015 was three days of sobriety before I was back at it.
It held me back, to really believe that I was being “sober FOREVER”, that I was an “alcoholic”, an “addict”, that I had a “problem”. It held me back to believe that I had to subscribe to exactly what 12-step programs told me—that I am completely powerless, and need to submit to a higher power, and come to meetings, and basically change my personality and my life to fit into their program. The reservations would always hit, hard. I would wonder how bad of a problem I really had, because maybe this was just being young. I would compare myself to everyone I knew who I believe actually did have a problem, or I would get really jealous of glamorized drug experiences from friends and the media alike that I felt excluded from. If Lena Dunham can do coke and laugh about it on a popular TV show, for the sake of writing and living her story, why can’t I do that? Why do I have to miss out on what everyone else is doing? I need to stop taking myself so seriously! My reservation was that my PTSD stems from traumatic experiences in a church. 12-step programs were very preachy and cult-like in nature. To this day, I don’t believe in 12-step programs or what they teach, and it was dangerous for me to only see sobriety as submitting myself to that.
It’s also just really easy to think that it wasn’t that bad. It’s easy to find people who will tell me it wasn’t that bad. I am in my twenties, I live in a city, I am liberal, free thinking, dress the way I want, and I work in restaurants. Stonerism and nightly drinking are more the norm than they are not. Addicts at meetings have looked down on me because I have a way of cheerfully talking about my problems without really delving into them, and prescription pill abuse is often seen as “nothing” compared to heroin or oxy, drugs I never tried.
I almost tried heroin. I had a death wish that summer before rehab, and a dealer showed up at my door. If I had the money at the time, I would have gone all in. I think that says enough, but it took a while for me to realize that.
My official evaluation at rehab said I was near death when I showed up. And in my heart, I knew that death was coming for me sooner rather than later. I knew I wasn’t going to survive my twenties, as I cheated death and destroyed myself every single day. I lied to the people who loved me to steal drugs and alcohol from them. I pretended to feel things like empathy and love as I lived in a self-centered chaotic world I didn’t really want to live in anymore. I used to blame the world and other people when my friendships fell apart, or my life wasn’t where I wanted it to be. Only in sober hindsight do I see the truth.
I was especially talented at blaming my shortcomings, failures and general awful and selfish qualities on everyone else and the world around me. I didn’t take responsibility for myself. I was a victim of the world. I was a victim of everyone else.
It’s not normal to love going home to my parents’ house because I can raid the cabinets for Xanax, prescription pain killers and vodka as soon as they’re not home. It’s not normal to go home for a week because I am so terrified of my out of control addictive behavior, only to sneak out at 1 in the morning to go to a bar and meet up with a guy I haven’t seen in two years who will buy me shots. then be able to smile and hug my mom when she tells me she’s proud of me for the steps I’m taking to be sober and better my life. It’s not normal to spend Christmas day paralyzed in bed from my most recent kitchen cabinet drug raid, realizing that I mixed a dangerous amount of different drugs, and I could die, and to shrug and not care.
And if normal is synonymous with addiction, maybe the norms don’t matter when it comes to what the right decision is for me.
I was coming out of another shame cycle in December 2015, and I made sobriety happen by taking off all the pressure, the labels, the extremity. I told myself I was going to do a little experiment called sobriety, and that I would take it day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment, and see what came of it. So when those crippling cravings hit, when I felt that I couldn’t survive my thoughts or emotions, when I drooled at the thought of a glamorous night out, or wanted to be young like everyone else, instead of trying to convince myself I had a real problem, I told myself to stick to my sobriety experiment. And if sobriety really wasn’t for me, that life would be there waiting for me. WIthout that mindset, the changes and revelations that were to come would never have been made possible.
Day 1 of my sobriety was December 30, 2015. I was adamant to myself to not make this a “new year’s thing”. I would not be able to take myself seriously if sobriety was a new year’s resolution on a list of half-hearted promises to myself. Sobriety had to be in a league of its own for me, and I knew that.
For the first three weeks, I found myself drooling at the shift drinks I passed up at the bar I work at. When I went on a trip to New York City, I almost gave in as I sat at 169 Bar, surrounded by neon lights, kitschy decor and a drink menu that made me want to cry. A friend there gave me some of the best advice I’ve received.
“What is the little voice in your head telling you?” He asked.
“Well, it’s saying that I get why I’m trying out sobriety, but I don’t want to miss out on experiences, and I’ll honestly be fine if I drink tonight and start up again when I go back to Richmond, and I don’t want to take myself so seriously that I miss out on life, even if I kind of get why I’m doing this.”
“That sounds complicated.”
“It’s just how my brain works.”
“Maybe you will be fine drinking tonight, and can go right back to your sobriety after. But the more you break your promises to yourself, the more promises to yourself you’ll allow yourself to break.”
I realized then I’d made a promise to myself that I had to follow through on, even as my brain screamed for alcohol, even as I was on a fun New York City trip and didn’t have to work for the next week and would probably be fine. I had to keep this promise to myself, even when I seriously doubted the reasons I was even doing this.
The first three weeks were brutal. I had to stare at the ugliness of my life without looking away. It was like someone strapped duct tape to my eye lids to keep them open and nailed horse blinders to my face. I couldn’t look away. I needed relief. I needed to close my eyes. I needed some kind of distraction. And that didn’t come. But as brutal as those first three weeks were, some surprising things began to happen.
I thought I was a chronic slob, but I started feeling the need to clean my apartment daily. My life felt like it had a harmony and order to it from that.
I thought I had chronic fatigue or something else seriously wrong with me. I was known to fall asleep in public places from my exhaustion, no matter how much sleep I got. Suddenly, I found myself awake with the sun every day, full of energy and motivation.
I thought I was a cynic stuck in a dead end life, but I started to make steps every day to better my situation, to network, to create opportunities. It felt less like forcing myself to get out there, and more like an overflow of my energy and motivation. It felt like an energy flowed out of me from this natural place inside me. I think it’s called hope. I think it’s called inner strength. I think it’s called self-love. I hadn’t had that before.
I thought I had incurable depression, and that my trauma was too much to ever heal from, but I haven’t been suicidal or seriously triggered once since going sober.
I either thought that every human in the world was horrible, or I was too horrible for all of them, and the belief system also vanished. My friendships began to really bloom.
In the first month of sobriety, I dated men it didn’t work out with, and was able to move on without my self-worth even being touched by the experiences. I networked, joined a writer’s guild, became more giving and aware of other people. I landed an interview for an extremely competitive dream job in New York.
I thought I had chronic writer's block. I got a guitar for my 12th birthday. It was a match made in heaven. I am a poet and a singer, and I quickly figured out how to muse these forms together to create and to speak in a world I felt I had to be silent in through belting my poetry over the vibrations of acoustic strings. I fell in love with making music that made sense of my confusing and challenging world growing up. I used the songs I wrote to stand up for myself, to sing a message of hope I actually meant that echoed through the darkest corridors of my life. I have played my music for patients at rehab and in hospitals, and discovered that it is a message that has the power to shine a tiny shred of light into a darkness that is experienced by too many others. My music was my only authenticity and my only joy, and it was something I had to give. It was in my late teens when I began to hear from music industry professionals that I should eliminate anything that stood in the way of relentlessly pursuing a music career, because I had a shot at one. They meant boyfriends. I don't think they ever would have dreamed that the bubbly, timid, innocent girl was held back by far more than that. It wasn't long before my troubles that once fueled my works began to swallow my music whole. Drugs and alcohol robbed me of my mind, my words, my creativity, along with my empathy and my energy. I truly believed my talent was a fluke that I no longer had in me. It was in the first week of sobriety that I discovered the most wonderful thing- when I touch my guitar now, I write three songs in one sitting. Hours writing music fly by, and they seem like minutes to me, like a blissful trance. I am finding it again. I am home. And I am falling in love with creating again.
The victories, as wonderful as they are, are not the full story. The second month was when the honeymoon period of sobriety ended for me. I began to feel exhausted again, from the things in my life that weren’t where I wanted them to be. I was still poor, still working a lot of hours outside of my field, people were still people with flaws and their own lives that weren’t always available to cater to my every whim and mood. But even on my “off days”, my “bad mood days”, I found that my words and my music and my art flowed from me. I found that sometimes sobbing and letting myself feel my feelings cured all ills, and felt really good. I found that on days I felt I wasn’t being productive, I was still productive, because I couldn’t help myself.
I am on my third month of sobriety now in my twenties, and the doubts and reservations about what I’m doing have all but disappeared. I say to myself that, perhaps casually, I will drink in careful doses someday, but I really say that to myself to keep my sobriety strong, to keep myself free from the pressures of extreme thinking.
My whole life is ahead of me, and regular binge drinking and drug use are extremely glamorized by the youth in my generation, and the media. If I am not careful. I fall into thinking that my life is over, and I am becoming boring too soon. But then it never ceases to amaze me how much chemicals that change the way my brain sees the world for moments at a time are such a hallmark of youth and were such an important part of my life that it can actually feel like I am missing out on living by not partaking in that.
I found that, at first, people teased or pressured me to stop what I was doing, but those same people have now come up to me asking me for advice on how to get sober, or told me that they have seen the difference in me. I am a noticeably more stable, even happy person, and it feels great. I find myself hopeful about the future, and content with my efforts in the present. And a lot of the same people who glamorize partying for me want what I have more than what they have.
I have always been a dreamer. I knew that, somewhere inside, I had the potential to really be a writer and a musician, in a stable loving relationship, in a non-hectic life, with true friends and financial stability. It was easy to tell myself that since I had it in me, there was no need to make that a reality. I also fell into the mindset that the universe owed me, that it was up to the universe to make my life come together. It was easy to say maybe someday to my dreams, or wait for them to show up at my front door like a miracle, while I lived in my shame cycle of instant gratification and oblivion.
And now, I am experiencing the reality of working towards my goals, made possible by sobriety. That reality is taking the good with the bad, every day. It is dealing with disappointments, heartbreaks and rejections with poise. It is honoring my body when it tells me to slow down, and honoring my heart when it needs to let out feelings that are anything but blissful. It is being thankful for what I’ve already got, and expressing gratitude. It is not resting until I have made the time in my day, every day, to create something I am proud of. It is putting my feelers out there for different opportunities to see how they fit, and see how far I can get. It is meeting new people, experimenting, and it is as exciting as it is monotonous. I realize now that my hopes for myself don't magically appear because I snap my fingers and make it so, or because the universe owes me a miracle, but that it is a less glamorous reality, and an effort I make every day that I balance with the realities of everyday life. I work as hard as I can at the jobs I have in order to support myself while making the time to do what I love to do. Sometimes I feel lonely. Sometimes I feel disheartened. But I pick myself up every day and keep on keeping on.
I’ve heard it said in AA that the worst day in sobriety is ten times better than the very best day before sobriety. Though AA was not right for me, I have found that gem to be true. I am a better person today, and I eagerly await the rest of my life, while finding beauty in every single day. Even the rough ones. Especially the rough ones.
My peers have asked me if I’m bored. And in all honesty, my sober life is about a thousand times more exciting than my drunken life was. Sober, I am able to build opportunities, make plans, save money and go explore. I am able to truly make the most of my life rather than seek oblivion from a numb and depressing jail cell. I think the idea that alcohol is what makes youth so exciting is a myth, and one that I am grateful I see through.
#Real #PersonalEssay #Sobriety #Sober #AA #GettingClean #Strength #Dreams #Music #Writing
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