Talk about purple haze. Has it really been a decade since 2006? That’s crazy. I find myself flipping through radio stations, pausing on the songs I recognize. Nirvana—on the classic rock station. The Pixies—buried in an “alternative throwback” playlist. Honestly, I’m starting to feel a little bit old.
But when you’re a sober alcoholic and heroin addict, getting old is a gift that not everyone gets to enjoy. Who ever heard of an old junkie? I can name two famous living ones—Iggy Pop, Keith Richards—and a whole lot of dead ones, well known or not. When I was in the belly of my addiction, I didn’t know if I would make it out alive. That was ten years ago. It was the hardest time in my life, and my actions created ripples of damage that continue to influence my life today.
Renn Fayre, Magical Wonderland
I recently went through my archives—those folders are deep—and found a photo of myself in the last days of April 2006, on the front lawn of my college. I had just finished my senior thesis. It’s the college’s tradition to celebrate with an end-of-semester blowout called Renn Fayre. The three-day party is a cross between Burning Man and Space Camp. My school, which was extremely nerdy 99% of the time, was suddenly transformed into a giant, goofy carnival—plywood castles, a maze to get lost in, motorized couches, fireworks, and, of course, more drugs than you could shake a stick at.
Did I mention that three professors told me to take a leave of absence while I was a student there, and all three strongly suggested that I go to rehab? Did I mention that one of these kind teachers was my Russian professor? When a Russian tells you that you have a drinking problem—that’s when you know it’s serious.
Not Exactly A Party
For all its party atmosphere and psychedelic swag, Renn Fayre wasn’t fun for me. Why? Because I wasn’t there to celebrate. I was there to get hammered. I staggered through the crowd gathered in front of the library, whooping and chanting and spraying each other with champagne. In the center, there was a bonfire, where seniors tossed pages of their theses into the flames. It was supposed to be cathartic, I guess. I have found photos of myself, wandering through the melee, looking lonely even in a crowd of exuberant, kissing people. I was looking for a bottle.
I invited myself into a circle of other students on the front lawn and tried to make small talk. I was wearing the golden laurel wreath that meant I was about to graduate and my favorite Carhartt overalls—the uniform of a kid who doesn’t want to grow up. I remember fearing my future, because in my heart I believed that I didn’t have one.
We passed around a joint, then a few big bottles of beer. I had already downed a few tallboys, and several bitter swigs of the cheap champagne from the thesis parade. I was just starting to feel normal in my own skin when the man I was dating—not a student—rode up on his bicycle and sat down next to me. At that moment, one of the people in the circle produced a bottle of absinthe, and I felt myself begin that slow, magnetic slide into total intoxication.
My Life in One Picture: 2006
I have a photograph of this moment, and when I look at it now I see everything that was going wrong in my life in 2006, and everything that has dogged me for the last ten years. It’s a portrait of a fuck-up. The fuck-up was me.
My drinking only accelerated after that moment. Although I didn’t know it was possible at the time, I progressed to nightly blackouts. These were punctuated by brief moments of lucid self awareness, panic attacks, and horrible fights with the man I’m kissing in this picture. I woke up in the mornings and felt my swollen liver pushing against my ribs. I could no longer afford my drug habit and drank more to feed my cravings. I got a job and went to work drunk, or so hungover that I was completely useless. I always carried a toothbrush, eye drops, and breath mints, to try and hide the damage my addiction was doing. One by one, I sold the books and records I’d carefully collected in college. My college degree, paid for by my extremely hard working parents, was stuck in a folder on my shelf.
The man I’m kissing? I married him. It was one of the worst mistakes I made, in a long list of bad decisions. One year after this picture was taken, I took my vows in the Catholic church where I’d been baptized and confirmed. Nobody except my sister and my husband’s best friend was there—I’d told my family to stay away until the reception the following week. Deep down, I knew I wasn’t making a good choice, and I was ashamed of myself. The night before the wedding, my husband texted me, “Please don’t show up drunk.” So I showed up hungover, with a bottle of champagne and no bouquet. Saying the words, Til death do us part, I felt my stomach turn over, sprout hairs. Once again, I didn’t want to celebrate. I didn’t feel like a princess. I felt like a fraud.
Yes, we had a child together. Yes, we fought almost daily. Yes, he abused me physically, sexually, and emotionally. Yes, I was foolish. I got sober in spite of this and left him in spite of my fears and self doubt.
My Life in One Picture: 2016
Ten years later, this is me.
It’s the same college campus where, ten years ago, I was doing my best to drink my future away. That’s my son, who turned eight this spring. He’s never seen me loaded. He doesn’t have a drunk or a drug user for a mother. He trusts me. My face is super pink because I just ran my first-ever 5K in a fun run to raise funds for a local elementary school. I finished the run with a 9-minute mile pace. I finished 26th in my age group, the top 20%; 28th out of all the women who participated. Needless to say, this would have been impossible if I was still drinking and using.
Best of all, I got to talk to a few people I recognized, and instead of feeling awkward and isolated—like I need a drink in my hand to feel confident—I fit right in. I was genuinely happy to hear how my classmates were doing, proud of their accomplishments instead of feeling like I hadn’t done enough. Instead of a plastic crown and battered overalls, I’m wearing my t-shirt from KLEN+SOBR, a gift from my friend Chris Aguirre, whose presence in my life has been a complete blessing. Just out of frame, my boyfriend is grinning at me—I have a partner who’s loving, protective, and emotionally healthy, and good to my son and I.
A Complete Transformation
The best part of the day? (Other than the post-run waffles.) It was the moment when I ran, grinning, across the finish line and went straight to my son. “This is for you,” I said. I handed him my participation medal.
“You won this?” His eyes got big.
“Yeah,” I panted.
“Mama, you’re a champion,” he said seriously. And you know what? I felt like a champion.
Putting these two pictures side by side, it’s hard to believe that such a sick, lonely, sad girl could become a self loving, confident, woman. I didn’t set out to be the person I am today, but I could not be more grateful for the incredible experiences I’ve had since getting sober.
It’s been a long ten years. I wonder what the next ten will bring.
photos by Stacia Torborg, Edward “Ned” Holets, and Nina Johnson.