A Story I've Never Told
When I was twenty, I ran away to Montana. I needed a break from college and the city, and I was trying to figure out how to break up with my first real boyfriend. He had made out with some coastie dorm slut and I was heartbroken. I got a job at a small resort on the east entrance to Glacier National Park and packed my car. Maybe 1,500 miles apart would help.
St. Mary is a lawless place, empty and rural, nestled against the Blackfoot Indian reservation. There are no towns nearby, just mountains and elk. The employees all lived together, worked together, ate together, and spent the season together. The owner was a spoiled party animal, and the resort atmosphere followed suit. I met Taylor.
You know when you stand next to someone and you buzz with electricity without even touching them? Taylor was a devilishly handsome Alabama boy, a little older and a lot badder than me. I was an overachiever in school and sat concertmaster as a freshman in the university orchestra; Taylor was fleeing the state after posting bail for dealing cocaine. But man, he was charming.
Every time we were in the same room, I felt eager. We spent a summer living wild. We rode horses to the bar with friends and had kegger bonfires. There was a whole house of 'Bama Boys, and I spent many nights throwing cans on a pile that was taller than me and making a mural while they played beer pong. It was my turn to be bad. One warm night, Taylor and I went upstairs, stoned and drunk on some really fancy six dollar wine. He pulled me onto the bed with him. My heart was pounding in my ears. He pulled his shirt over his head. This was the fantasy.
I made up my mind in a moment. I sat back. I pulled a black sharpie out of my back pocket and clicked off the cap. I started to draw an intricate black tattoo on his chest that spread to his shoulder. I told him to lay still. We stayed together, fully-clothed, for a long time until my new mural was finished and I re-capped the marker. It was bizarre, but extremely intimate somehow. Then I ran down the stairs. He called after me, but I rushed into the night alone.
I quit that job abruptly (I decided on a whim to go camping in Banff before fall semester started), folded my work shirt with my name tags on my bare bed, and drove north without saying goodbye. Taylor never completely disappeared. Sometimes months, sometimes years passed between talking to him. No matter how long it had been or what time it was, the familiar voice always answered on the other end in a smooth southern drawl. Hey babygirl. Marry me.
I suspect he held onto me because I became the fantasy; I am the one that slipped away unconquered that summer. I am embarrassed to admit that I kept his number in my phone for a decade because it comforted me. I've often been guilty of collecting people who understood parts of me, even if they only saw a fragment in some specific context. I was vulnerable with him that night, and I did not want to lose that part of myself.
I never found anyone I felt fully known by, which was part of my lonely.
No matter how far down the scale I went, I knew Taylor would catch me if I let go. No matter what decisions or confessions I made, he waited patiently, always desiring me. Water seeks its own level, and some part of my brain believed all those years that I really was bad. I wish you could feel the emotional punch of that statement like I do. The first message of my childhood was that I was born bad, worthy of nothing less of eternal punishment (just for existing). And then, surprise surprise, bad things were done to me by the people who taught me that very lesson. Things that made me feel less-than and things that made me feel guilty and keep secrets.
My intimacy with alcohol was the same. We were ride or die. No matter how badly I felt, alcohol would show up, chiseled and charming, to soothe my mind. It has dried up many, many tears and quieted so many painful thoughts. It knows my heart better than any human on the planet, I promise you. It's stayed with me through everything, non-judgementally and has been the net between me and death more than once. It makes my boring entertaining, my hurt numb, my happy ecstasy, my depression valid.
Alcohol is the most codependent relationship of all my fucked up, codependent relationships. When I first started attempting the heavy lifting of living a sober life, I promised myself that if this doesn't goddamn work, I can always go back. I can call from my distance, or age, or city, and it will answer. I have no doubt that alcohol will welcome me affectionately back into bed for a hard fuck. I've missed you.
My years of drinking cost me an awful lot, but it did not claim my life. I ran away just before I was conquered. I am, and I will be, one that got away.
I have not yet written explicitly about my alcoholism. I may start trying. In fact, I think many people still do not understand how bad it was. I did all my drinking and falling down and pissing in private. My best friend on earth was watching tumbleweeds in west Texas or polar bears in the Arctic circle, so I lied and got away with it (most of the time). I lived alone and tallied an astronomical amount of miles in my running shoes, got promoted at the bank, served on two boards of directors, blah blah blah. It's small-minded to dismiss the severity of a problem based on appearance.
Recovery teaches me to be neither proud nor haunted by drunkalogues. The program also encourages me to share my experiences, strength, and hope with others so I may be useful. We humbly disclose in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now. I might save that story for my one year anniversary, which is somehow only two months away, but I am ready to start opening some doors.
The fastest-growing genre of alcoholics is "female, she's well-educated, she is professional, she is high-functioning...24-36 years old," according to researcher Ann Dowsett-Johnston (author of Drink). You know who is severely underrepresented in the Rooms? Guess how many women my age are in the meetings, even all-women meetings (regardless of what state or city I'm in).
I will celebrate one year of sobriety by throwing a little weekend getaway in Flagstaff with three of ladies I went to treatment with - the only three of my friends who haven't relapsed. None of them are in their 20s or 30s. We are not falling down in the streets, homeless. We are not the old guys who crashed cars and lost custody. We are a secret society of isolated and wounded females.
The women who drink like me are exceptional. It's tragic. We suffer silently while caring for our children and tolerating our partners, excelling in our professions and moving mountains. Alcohol manipulates your neuron's messages. It ultimately makes your brain lazy, clumsy, forgetful, and stupid, yet we outperform our peers and rank high in the public eye, all while receding in to the darkest places of our souls. I was known as a health nut, taught Junior Achievement to second graders, founded a running group, published articles. I also blacked in covered in blood on my bathroom floor.
According to Ann Dowsett-Johnston's research, my drinking even makes sense: "women use alcohol to deal with pain, to deal with depression. We’re 40% more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety than men. We tend to isolate when we drink. We use alcohol to deal with anxiety, PTSD, or surviving sexual abuse (the single greatest indicator of alcoholism in females), which seems to be at an epidemic level."
If you look at the data, there are real reasons that I fell into alcoholism. It's not an excuse, but it's logically linear to map the progression. I want to write about it because it helps me make sense of something insane. I can try to explain it to you however I want, but truthfully I have not talked about it transparently because I've not known how to outside of the rooms. I want to be understood. I don't want to craft a rhetorical narrative of victimhood to convince you of something. My goal is only to write in simple and truthful ways.
And it really is simple: I'm ashamed. I drank alone, I drank willfully, and I drank to not notice that I was starving. I hurt others and I did it anyway. I knew better, I was smarter than that, but I did it anyway.
People like me end up in "hospitals, jails, and institutions" if we allow this sick relationship to pervade. I ended up in all three before I was ready to break up. Thank god I did.
There are promises made to you when you start getting sober, and those promises are starting to come true for me. I do know a new freedom and a new happiness. For the first time in a decade, my emotions are trustworthy. That's jacked up. My intuition, or what I've written about before as wise mind, speaks up. I can live without secrets. I am not codependent. I am not alone.