Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Moments of Clarity

This evening at my home-group meeting, the topic of discussion was "moments of clarity": those little things that happened to us in our drinking or using or even recovery where we realized that the jig was up, that we were alcoholics or addicts and had to stop. For many of us it is a blinding flash of self-realization. For me it was a series of epiphanies that eventually added up to a Moment of Clarity, and was followed by a few more little epiphanies. And while I did get a chance to share about my Moment of Clarity, I edited out (for the sake of narrative integrity) all the little epiphanies that led up to it. These stories are rattling around in my head right now, and so I am staying up way past my bedtime to jot them down.

I should preface these epiphanies with an understanding that I knew all about Recovery long before I ever had my Moment or attended my first meeting, even before I ever took my first drink. My mother had often attended court-ordered AA meetings, and often dragged my sister and me along with her. Since my mother wasn't intent on actually stopping drinking or drugs, she always chose the most dismal possible meetings to fulfill her legal obligation, meetings filled with embittered old failures, miserable dry-drunks like herself who were there because they had to be, or people who simply reveled in misery (it's a personality type I just don't get, but there it is). On other occasions my sister and I would sit in on an Al-aTeen meeting or an Al-Anon session, but again these tended to be the hardcore misery-monger meetings where people didn't seem like the sort of people one would wish to know, unhappy and very damaged people who were struggling daily with their disease. My father also exposed me to Recovery on occasion, when he was drying out in a VA facility and we went to visit and sat in on a family therapy session or two.

And so, while my first view of AA was not a favorable one, I did manage to absorb a great deal of Program just by sitting and listening and reading the posters and placards on the walls. I knew the 12 Steps, the 44 Questions, and a lot of sayings and aphorisms and whatnot. I knew how to tell when a person is an alcoholic, and I knew what lies alcoholics tell themselves when they are in denial.

But I thought I was better than that. Like many a teenager and young-adult, I was infected with an "It Won't Happen to Me" mentality. And so even with the knowledge of how many children of alcoholics become alcoholics themselves, I started drinking, believing with all my heart that I was better and smarter than my parents, and I wouldn't end up like them.

So anyway, I started drinking, and I handled it pretty well for a while, and then I started losing control... very slowly, by degrees, so I could justify and rationalize and deny the progress of the disease.

When I was 23 and into 24, I lived with my sister, her husband, her son, and after a little while her new baby. Shortly after I turned 24, our father moved in with us. He was at that time at the very bottom of his own using and drinking. He lived with us because he had lost his home, his job, his car, his wife, almost everything he had. While he lived with us, he smoked crack and drank entire cases of gin at a time. I looked at him with disgust, superior to him in every way because I drank like a gentleman, socially and with a certain amount of style.

Eventually he reached a point where he had no money and no way of getting more money, and was at a dead end. Grandmother asked me to help by taking Daddy to an AA meeting. She came over to the house to drive us to the meeting. While there, she looked around at the mess we all lived in, and pointed to the overflowing recycling bin: "Did Bob drink all that?" she asked incredulously, pointing at about fifteen wine-bottles and seven or eight empty liquor bottles. "No," I don't remember if I said it out loud or not, but those bottles weren't his. His bottles were still in the box they came in, he had simply drunk each bottle like a pint of Evian and put it back. All those bottles in the bin were mine. Some of the liquor bottles, the rum and the bourbon, were my sister's and brother-in-law's, but the rest were my vodka empties, and all the wine-bottles were mine.

When I took Daddy to the meeting, I listened to the very glamorous speaker who told a really great story, and I realized that I could stop drinking if I wanted to, that all these people had stopped drinking and they weren't miserable old sods like the people at Mother's dreary court-ordered AA meetings. I announced myself as an alcoholic at that meeting, and was given a copy of Living Sober, the introductory text that eases one into the program. I read it as soon as I got home, and decided to quit drinking. I would save money, I would earn Grandmother's respect, and I could be healthy and happy.

About two weeks later I was drinking again. First it was a glass of wine, just to relax before a show, and in a few days I was cocktailing again, and later on I was drinking at home again. I didn't really care, either. I don't count that as a relapse, because I never really entered the program properly in the first place; though I had made up my mind to stop drinking, I failed to take the First Step: I did not admit that I was powerless over alcohol and that my life had become unmanageable. It was still manageable, and I thought I could take power over the alcohol. I was wrong, but I didn't realize it at the time... I just chalked it up to a temporary enthusiasm and forgot about it.

Three more years went by. I got worse. I moved in with Grandmother shortly after the abovementioned period, when my sister's marriage broke up and Daddy went into rehab; I therefore didn't have the opportunity to drink openly or at home. So I became a binge drinker... I would stop at the bar after classes, but I couldn't do it all the time so I kept it down to once or twice a week. About once a month, when I got my paycheck from my little student-aide job, I would go on a big daylong cocktailing binge. Grandmother knew I drank, but as a classic codependent she did very little to stop me except to disapprove of my drinking and nag me about it (not that anybody can stop a drunk from drinking... but she believed she could by nagging, which is why I call her a codependent, the definition of which is "someone who believes that they will learn to control and enjoy their drinker").

Things fell apart pretty fast then. I got where I would pass out quite frequently; I did it fairly gracefully most of the time, and was able to tell myself that I was just tired from my studies and the mad social whirl and had simply fallen asleep. Embarrassing, but not too bad. My hangovers got increasingly painful, too; I threw up a lot, often in public on my way home from the bar. Sometimes I even blacked out. But I often went days, weeks even, without drinking, so I was able to convince myself that I was okay.

I knew, then, that I was an alcoholic, that I had to have alcohol to be happy. But instead of admitting it, I called myself a Lush instead, tried to make a personality out of it. I was well-known as a booze-hound; most of my friends treated it like a cute little eccentricity when I would bring one bottle as a house-gift and one bottle for myself, and when I eventually passed out on their sofas halfway through a party. I was a happy drunk, I never got into fights or became unpleasant to talk to. People usually enjoyed watching me deteriorate from the prim little queen to the silly little drunk. Only those closest to me could see me falling apart at high speed, and they weren't the kind of people who could make me see or admit what I was doing.

I figured I could ride that reputation for a long time, and then die when I got too bad. But one day I was sitting in a bar, a dive on Grand Avenue where I had popped in to get out of the rain, and had a couple of vodka-tonics while waiting for the next bus to come along. As I sat there, an older woman came in and sat at the end of the bar. She wasn't exactly a "bum," but she certainly looked poverty-stricken to the furthest extreme before reaching bum status. She ordered as single shot of scotch; she paid for it in nickels and dimes; she sat staring into it and taking tiny little sips for just the longest time. Her whole life was in that little glass, and she focused on it with the intensity of desperate prayer. She was quite the most miserable looking person I'd ever seen indoors, a bleak and desolate creature of pain and disappointment.

I saw myself in her. I knew that I wouldn't die when the alcohol made my life unmanageable. I would live a long and miserable life like my parents and like that lady, outliving my usefulness, outliving my joy, outliving my strength to end it all. I would descend by slow degrees to that place of desolation and would be too tired and defeated to kill myself. It was an epiphany, a vision of what my life would become if I continued to drink.

But I did not stop. As a matter of fact, I got quite a bit drunker that day. And for the next few months I got as drunk as I could as often as I could, and with an increasing sense of fatality. Eventually people noticed that I was deteriorating and began to comment. My arguments with Grandmother became more ferocious, my discussions of life and love with friends became more pointedly focused on drinking, and on that last immemorial night of my drinking career, even the owner of my favorite bar asked me if I had considered that I may have a drinking problem. You know you've reached the end when bar-owners think you've gotten messy. Epiphany.

The next day, after having passed out on my own front porch in broad daylight (it was late May, the day after I graduated from Laney College with three associate degrees with high honors), I woke up with a most unspeakable hangover. Grandmother was so angry at me: not only had I passed out on the porch where people could see me, but my behavior came right after a night where she had been so proud of me. Her disappointment was so much more profound after having been so elated. She screamed at me in a most piercing tone for about two and a half hours. I wept and held my head and agreed with her just to shut her up. Eventually she wrapped up her comments with an ultimatum: I would stop drinking or I would move out of her house.

Afterward I sat on our back deck, smoking and drinking coffee and juice for my hangover, justifying and rationalizing and denying to beat the band. It was like fretting with a tangled string of Christmas lights, all my denials and justifications looped around each-other and obscuring a truth that I knew existed but couldn't see. I considered moving out, thought about where I'd go and what I'd do, what depths of ugliness I could live in on my income while I was a student and couldn't work much. I considered pretending to quit drinking, just to get Grandmother off my back: I could become a secret drinker, give up the bar and keep bottles in my room to drink every night before I went to bed.

Suddenly, as often happens when you're fretting with a tangle of Christmas lights, the whole thing came loose all at once and rolled out in front of me and I could see. I suddenly saw that I was an alcoholic and my life had become unmanageable: I was about to lose my home and the respect and protection of the one person who had always taken care of me, and that's pretty fucking unmanageable, as lives go; I was about to start hiding bottles of liquor around my house and pretending to be sober while remaining drunk, and that sounded a whole hell of a lot like an alcoholic.

That was my Moment of Clarity. Memory has endowed the moment with a beam of celestial light and angelic choirs from above; in reality it was early afternoon on a beautiful spring day in a garden full of blooms, and my mind was suddenly clear. I saw my path, I knew what I had to do: even if I was going to be miserable for the rest of my life, I had to quit drinking or I would end up in a place so low that misery would be a prayed-for luxury. I knew enough about recovery to know that I couldn't quit just for Grandmother and I couldn't do it alone; and so I knew then and there that I had to want to quit drinking for me and that I had to go to AA immediately.

And so I did. It took a couple more weeks of arguing with myself and almost falling back into the old thinking, but I eventually found a home group, found a sponsor, worked the steps, and got better. I thank God for that Moment, and for the little epiphanies that prepared me for it. Sometimes when I think about it, like now, I get all choked up with amazement and gratitude that I was able to see clearly while I was still young and had so much before me, that I didn't have to lose my home and my Grandmother and my friends before I could see, that I didn't have to become exactly like my parents before I could see, that I didn't have to become like that tragic old woman in Smitty's with her nickels and dimes and scotch and despair before I could see.

Well, anyway, I just had to get that out of my system. I'm kvelling all over the place now, and it's so late and I have to get up in the morning, and so I had better wrap this up and go to bed. Thanks for listening, and I hope that there was something of use or at least of amusement in there for you. Hugs and kisses! You're the best!

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