My mom said that to me one morning during my recent holiday visit. We were sitting in the kitchen of my childhood home in suburban Chicago, where my husband and I bunked from Christmas Day until New Year’s Eve, sleeping in my old bedroom until an unheard-of 9 AM (10 Eastern!) every day. I had consumed only half a pot of coffee at the time — 2019 was a year for starting to kick the alcohol addiction; maaaaaaybe we’ll tackle caffeine in 2020 — so I didn’t really grasp what she was saying.
Also, at that particular moment, I absolutely did not feel different.
In fact, even without the full coffee rush, my brain had already begun its daily race, unleashing the same ripples of anxiety that had launched thousands of disappearing acts throughout my life — some as recent as 12 hours prior. I was already busy plotting my next escape out of the house to the local forest preserve trail for a long walk, just me and my new wireless headphones and the Binge Mode ‘Game of Thrones’ podcast that is my latest non-food/beverage obsession.
I moved through my first sober holiday season in a bit of a daze, observing everything around me with wide eyes and mute mouth, like an overstimulated toddler: Bright lights! Lots of people! Piles of gifts! Plates of food! Pots of coffee! Nonstop noise! News and talk shows on TV! Where’s the remote?! Oh shit, there are little kids here and I can’t put on “Game of Thrones”! I have to get the f*ck out of here NOW!
There were times I sat among my loved ones, my parents and aunts and sisters and their hubbies and children, listening to them talk around the table, and was so overwhelmed that I could not for the life of me conjure up one single thing to add to the conversation. So I did what I always do, which is either flee the scene or shove something in my mouth.
“If I’m different,” I thought, after processing my mom’s words for a few seconds on the aforementioned morning, “it’s that I’m now a size 12/14, instead of an 8/10, and at the rate I’m going, I might have to pay for two plane seats on the flight back…”
Well, I’m happy to say I dodged that bullet, although I can’t deny gaining weight. I’m back in Bucks County, back in my new home (2002-present), having just picked up a beautiful Cubbie-blue 6 Months Sober coin at my regular Saturday morning recovery meeting. With distance and a little bit of time, I think I finally have the perspective to see what Mom meant.
No, I have not completed a “full one-eighty” after 180 (actually, 181, now that I’ve caught up on making all my hashmarks) days without a drink. The arc of my sobriety story is still very much an acute angle (pause while we all remember the classic Family Guy/Shawshank sendup 😂). But when I allow myself to step back and really think about it…holy shit, I really have come a long way!
Anyone who’s ever been exposed to a 12-step program, or watched any TV show or movie that references a 12-step program, knows that one of the steps is “making amends.” It’s Step Nine, to be exact, and it instructs that you face the people you hurt while drinking/using and apologize, then offer to make things right.
While I see my family of origin twice a year, at most, and I haven’t lived in the same state as any of my blood relatives since I graduated college, choosing recovery six months ago meant abandoning the foolish notion that my alcoholism had not hurt them at all. For many years, I labored under the delusion that I was only hurting myself by guzzling a handle of tequila (sometimes more) every weekend; meanwhile, my husband was basically keeping me alive and out of jail the entire time.
Difference #1, right there: Today, I am no longer living a lie.
I saw my holiday trip home as a golden opportunity to Step-Nine my two younger sisters. I asked them out for coffee. I had no real plan for the meeting, no script written down or even rehearsed in my head. That’s probably why I kicked things off by saying something very savvy like, “So, um, I’m supposed to be making amends…”
I didn’t need to say much, though, because my baby sis, the youngest of three (I was nine when she was born), had plenty to get off her chest. With tears in her eyes, she told me in full detail about the times she came to visit me in Philly and we went out and I got so drunk that she felt afraid and unsafe. She told me about the times I went to visit her, and she felt that I chose sitting around drinking over bonding with her and her newborn son.
As she spoke, I felt the urge to interject, to defend myself, to “correct” parts of the story I remembered differently. But then, I thought about my program. I thought about what I’d heard from my sponsor and the people in all those meetings and on all those podcasts, and what I’d read in all those books.
I said nothing, letting my sister’s words sink in without mentally shutting down. I listened, instead of just formulating a retort and waiting for my chance to blurt it out. I stayed calm, tamping down my knee-jerk compulsion to attack every uncomfortable situation with a tornado of thoughts and emotions, collateral damage be damned.
I took the criticism I had earned and absorbed the reality of the pain I’d inflicted. I looked my sister in the eye and owned up to my mistakes. I apologized and vowed to be better.
Difference #2: Turns out I’m capable of acting like an adult!
Now, I’m not suggesting I deserve a cookie — much less a coin — for being 41 years old and displaying a life skill that even my lovely 10-year-old niece has demonstrated from time to time. I’m just saying, restraint isn’t typically a readily available weapon in an addict’s arsenal, and for me, it’s pretty much been MIA my entire life.
It takes a good deal of restraint for an alcoholic to not drink for six months, through Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year’s and all the other days ending in ‘y,’ and then continue to stay sober, one day at a time, after that. I’m doing pretty well there. But recovery, which to me means living a happy and productive sober life and continuing to grow as a person, takes a kind of emotional restraint — maturity might be a better word — that has thus far eluded me.
I’m still a long way from grasping it. Little by little, though, I’m learning to face all the thoughts and feelings and awkward interactions I drank to avoid, and let them flow through me, rather than take control of me.
This is the best amends I can make to my family: Finally growing up and becoming the person I’m meant to be.
If the people who know me best have noticed a change since I got sober, I must be doing something right. But I wouldn’t be here today if I didn’t have help.
In fact, when I reflect on those six days I spent in Chicago visiting the family, it really hammers home that I hit the support system jackpot. I mean, I took in quite the haul this Christmas, unwrapping new Cubs, Northwestern AND Bears winter hats, those kick-ass wireless headphones I mentioned earlier, a suitcase, a subscription to Audible that I’ve already used to devour the latest David Sedaris, gift cards and cash — all stuff I LOVE and makes me happy. But by far the greatest gift my generous family gave me was a simple, silent gesture that came absolutely free.
When I wasn’t hiking in the woods or hiding in my room with a book and a bag of almonds, I had the chance to go out and have fun with my sisters and brothers-in-law. One night, we celebrated my middle sis’ 16th wedding anniversary over dinner, at a restaurant with a bar. And not a single person at the table ordered an alcoholic drink.
There was also no booze at Christmas dinner, or any dinner we shared around my parents’ dining room table. Mom and Dad even stocked up on my favorite diet sodas — Canada Dry Cranberry Ginger Ale and Sunkist Orange — so I wouldn’t have to settle for boring old water.
I’m not sure I can express how much that meant to me. If I tried, we might be here until next New Year’s, so…
Strangely enough, my only direct exposure to alcohol during my entire trip home came when I opened the (clearly seldom-used) mini fridge up in my dad’s home theater and found a six-pack of hard cider that I’d put there myself, the last time I visited back in June. It took me by surprise, and I stood there staring at it for a few seconds, remembering how much I used to love that stuff, and how out of character it would’ve been for the old me to let a whole six-pack go un-guzzled. WTF? Was I being tested?
Are you there, God? It’s me, Jen, and I’m an alcoholic!
I kid, but I know my higher power was with me in that moment, because I shut the fridge door and made a beeline downstairs. I told my dad he needed to clean out his man cave more often. And then I happily joined whatever conversation or activity was going on with the rest of the family. …Or, maybe I holed up in my room with a book and a bowl of pudding. Or, possibly I popped in my headphones and got lost in a deep-dive discussion of Westerosi lore while raiding my stash of salty snacks.
All I know is, I did not do what the old me would have done.
One snap decision in one split second, signifying a monumental shift. What once was “out of character” is now my way of life. Amazing! In six months, I’ve gone from an anxious, antisocial, gluttonous drunk — and caffeine addict — to an anxious, introverted, gluttonous nerd who needs copious amounts of coffee to function. See, Mom was right! 😂
And that brings us to Difference #3: I accept where I am today and do not expect perfection. As long as I keep stretching my story arc forward, I’m OK with whatever angle (or size) I happen to be at.