I got a migraine last Friday that hung around until Saturday afternoon. The kind that pulled me into catatonic sleep — pillow over the head style — and also woke me up several times in the night, from the pain.
At one point I woke up parched, head pounding, and thought I was hungover.
A surge of panic rushed through me, followed by the familiar-as-a-second-skin wave of nausea, the “Nonononono. Not again. What happened. Fuck.”
I realized immediately that I wasn’t hungover, but the adrenaline had already released. I closed my eyes and gently put the pillow back over my head while my heart pounded and waves of anxiety lapped against my psyche. I repeated to myself: you are ok, you are ok, you are ok, until my heartbeat slowed.
All day thereafter I thought about what it was like waking up that way, over and over again. How grateful — like, insanely grateful — I am that I haven’t woken up that way in a while. How far away that feeling seems, but how close it is, too. How goddamn slippery the slope was to get here. How lucky I feel to have kept climbing, to have kept reaching, for something I couldn’t even see. How lucky I am that I still want to keep reaching.
I wrote some things down to try and describe exactly what it was like for that year and a half when I didn’t want to be sober, but knew I couldn’t keep drinking. When almost every day was an utter struggle. To drink. To not drink. To find my place in the world. To come to terms with what felt like a shit hand I’d been dealt — the unfairness of it, the anger, the loneliness, the incessant questions beating in my heart:
“Who will ever love me? Who will want this?”
So yesterday I wrote down exactly what made it so hard because I never want to forget. I want to remember so I can say to someone staring down the same uncertainty: I have been there. I remember. I know. Let me tell you.
I flashed back to a Sunday in the fall of 2013.
My husband and I were recently separated. The transitions with our three year-old daughter were still new. He had just picked her up and the silence that fell after they shut the door was deafening. I was alone. In the house that we lived in. A house much too big for one.
It was a beautiful day. The afternoon light danced all over the empty living room.
I was newly single. I had blocks of free time to myself suddenly. My instinct was to go out, find some pals to play with, to drink away the afternoon, the emptiness, the space.
But I had lost that right. A couple months prior when I very publicly left my daughter unattended while I was drinking (not the first, or the last, of my low points) I lost the right to go drink an afternoon away.
I couldn’t justify saying “fuck it” one more time. Not with a clean conscience. I knew too much.
Suddenly it felt like the world completely closed in on me. Like I could actually hear doors shutting. SLAM! There’s the door to fun. SLAM! There’s the door to love. SLAM! There’s the door to excitement and spontaneity and silliness. SLAM! There’s the door to life as you know it.
I crumbled into a pile of tears in my oversized red chair. I wailed to the empty room and the beautiful light. I cried for a long, long time.
Some might hear this and think, Really? All those things you’d yoked to drinking? And my answer would be, Yes — all those things. Over 36 years of living and 20 years of drinking, I had linked a lot of life to drinking. It had not always been my enemy; it was actually great fun for a long time. Omni-present but not oppressive. A glue in my relationships. An activity that spun up whatever I was doing into something a little more sparkly, giddy, enticing. And now that I was to give it up, I didn’t know where to be, or how, or with whom.
Yet, the saddest girl in the world sitting there on that red chair was the same girl who woke up in her bed almost daily in a panic, shaking, and confused because of drinking. She was the same girl who didn’t know how a night would turn out once she started — truly did not know — and that aura of possibility had turned from excitement to terror somewhere along the way. She was the same girl that was afraid of herself much of the time. Whose hands shook. Whose heart raced constantly. Who couldn’t look people in the eye. Who needed caffeine in crazy doses to wake up and long runs to quell her nerves. She was the same girl, and yet, she couldn’t reconcile the two. No conscious connection in the light of day.
“So I cried until I couldn’t cry anymore”
I’m not sure what else happened that day, but I know I didn’t drink. And I know I was very aware of this fact. That’s how the earliest days felt to me and what was so goddam unnerving: I was aware of myself constantly. Like an invisible current of electricity was circulating through me — a low-level, barely detectable, but omni-present current that left me raw and jumpy. Aware of everything I was doing and not doing. Here I am, driving my daughter home from school, not going to get wine. Here I am taking a walk to the park, not drinking. Here I am, cooking dinner, without wine. Here I am riding the train home. Here I am sitting in a meeting. Here I am running, sipping coffee, talking to a co-worker, eating lunch, sending a text, watching House of Cards. Here I am coming out of my skin.
I constantly had the urge to unplug that current. Like someone running around with their hair on fire looking for any body of water to plunge into. I wanted relief. Fast. Now. Sometimes I wanted it with terrifying urgency. A lot of times I just said, Oh, screw it, and I’d order the wine, go to the liquor store, say yes to going out, or whatever. Because it works. It worked. Drinking let me unplug, say yes, care less, be social, be a part, be free. And even at the end, it still worked, even if only for an hour. But that hour? That time when the chemicals in your brain are rearranging nicely — it’s a relief, and it’s powerful, and I get why we do it.
So for a long time — a year or more — I kept doing this yo-yo thing. In and out, back and forth, ugh and stuck. And I get why. I get why it was so hard. I also wish I could tell that girl on the big red chair a few things about how I feel today.
If I could, this is what I’d say:
I know it sucks, sucks, sucks.
Tell the truth.
The raw current will subside, and in its place you will plug into something beautiful.
The thing you are afraid of giving up — it is not what holds you together.
You are going to fall apart. This is good.
You are brave.
You are so much stronger than you know.
You wonder who will ever love you? The whole universe.
You wonder who will ever want this? You will.
Just keep going.
This is the beginning, sweet girl, not the end.
Laura McKowen is a mama, writer, light seeker and recovery warrior living in Boston, MA. She writes about addiction, her sobriety journey, and love of all kinds at http://www.lauramckowen.com/ She is also half of The Home Podcast