What if I told you it was easier for me to quit drinking than it is to initiate a social interaction?
It took me 20 years of getting my ass handed to me by booze to finally get that 🐒 off my back. I guess it’s not really surprising that, in the absence of my precious chemical security blanket, I’m just as afraid of people now as the awkward, anxious 1990s teenager who preferred tutoring sessions with a math teacher to hanging out in the hallways before class trying to make small talk with schoolmates.
(Oh, just wait! The stories get even more embarrassing…)
Solitude has always been my natural comfort zone. It’s normal to want to cozy up there after losing my most loyal lifelong friend: liquor.
Well, it might not be so “normal” to be 42 years old, and the mere idea of picking up the phone to call someone — anyone; the pharmacy, Athleta customer service, my family members — gives me a severe case of the jitters. Some of these people are, like, required by law to love me, and I still get so nervous about engaging them in conversation that I often chicken out and do not make the call.
Reminds me of my early days as a reporter, when I had to use an actual land line to solicit interviews. I would sit there, staring at the number pad for 10 minutes, trying to work up the courage to lift the receiver while simultaneously racking my brain to think of any other possible way to get the information I needed for this story. Were quotes really necessary? Could I just up and quit this job and move to a cabin in the woods? 🤔
These were high school coaches I needed to call about games and stats, mind you. It wasn’t hard-core investigative work in the underworld of organized crime or political corruption. Not that high school coaches can’t be sociopaths or criminals…but anyway, let’s move on.
If cold-calling was nerve-wracking, having to chat people up in person triggered a full-blown panic attack. At my first newspaper in Georgia, and then my second/last one up here in Philly, they used to make me do the front-page “scene stories” from the bigger college and pro sporting events: the MLB All-Star Game at Turner Field, Georgia-Florida football in Jacksonville, the final game at The Vet and first game at The Linc…you get the picture.
A “scene” assignment meant approaching random drunk fans in parking lots and concourses to ask things like, “What is your name and where are you from?” (shades of the great Dave Shutton from the Springfield Daily Shopper), “How big is this really big event?”, and “Can I have a few sips of your beer?”
Kidding! I’m kidding! I would just open their cooler and help myself.
This might actually be a better story if that last part was true. Alas, I did not drink at work. And that modicum of self control might have been the only thing keeping me employed for a while; remind me to tell you some other time about the “scene story” I completely blew off at the I-AA football national championship in Chattanooga, TN, in 2000 (Georgia Southern v. Montana). I basically dared my boss to fire me, simply because I just could not bring myself to walk up to fans and interview them that day.
Alcohol was always my medicine for those harrowing situations, but I waited until after the story was filed (or…not) and I could finally release the spring-tight tension I’d built up in the doing of the job. It was a welcome escape from what felt like an unbearable pressure-cooker, or like gasping for breath after spending several hours trapped under water.
After all that sucking in to mix with society, intoxication felt like home. Actually being at home, by myself, was pure heaven. Combining the two? 🤯
It’s funny to me that people think “drinking alone” is the “DEAD END” of the alcoholic journey, the universal sign that you’re really 🤬-ed. Not me, man! My ultimate happy place was always a Party of One out on the patio, kicking back in a lawn chair, staring at the sky, listening to the likes of Toad the Wet Sprocket and taking swigs from a tumbler of tequila.
No matter where I had to be in the world that day, or how many people I had to face/talk to/try to act “normal” around, getting back to that place was the carrot keeping me going.
If I ever had company in the comedown, it almost always involved binge-drinking my companion(s) under the table. My husband used to come to my apartment with a case of beer to watch baseball, and one day, my isolated little bubble was a Party of Two. Being with him was effortless; he loved the Cubs, enjoyed all my favorite athletic activities, and even liked the same kinds of music, which, if you know me, you know that gives a person instant soulmate status — often to my detriment; obviously, not in this case.
My husband made me feel safe, which is clearly what appealed to me the most about being alone. Solitude = safety. There’s no pressure to say the right thing, look a certain way, accomplish a certain feat. There’s no risk of “failure,” or falling short of some abstract expectation or ideal that might not really exist, except in my head…
Social distancing is the order of the day, today, and if this wasn’t due to a deadly pandemic, it would suit my life just fine. Lately, I’ve been thinking that my eagerness to isolate is starting to stunt my growth. I’ve lived 14 months in a sober bubble, and I’m starting to settle into the rut of, “THIS is the rest of my life?” I’m going to the same Zoom recovery meeting with the same familiar people every week. I’m taking long, solitary walks, lost in thought as my headphones play podcasts and “quit lit” (just bought “Quitter” by Erica C. Barnett with my monthly Audible credit). I’m enjoying daily at-home yoga sessions (led by Rainbeau Mars). I love going to bed at 7 after housing a ginormous salad and Big Gulp-sized smoothie every night like clockwork.
I’m committed to spilling my guts in this space once or twice a week. Virtual vulnerability is somehow so much easier than putting myself out there in real life.
The truth is, I’m getting complacent, and I know where that leads: boredom becomes restlessness, then things get straight-up squirrelly…and on spins the vicious cycle. It doesn’t necessarily lead to picking up a drink, but trust me, there are plenty of other addictive behavior patterns one can get caught up in that are just as, if not more, harmful. (*Cringe* )
The goal of recovery is to break the cycle for good. And I suspect that as long as I continue to choose the lonely road — the path of least resistance — I might successfully stay sober, but I will also stay stuck. Cocooning in a comfort zone feels wonderful, and there’s nothing wrong with it, but it can also be its own form of escape. The easy way out.
“Breaking the cycle” of self-soothing through solitude doesn’t mean I have to start hosting parties or accepting invitations to work Happy Hours and family brewery tours, or accosting neighbors I see out walking on the street (“Who are you and where are you going?!?” 🤣). It means shifting my focus from eternally inward to more frequently outward. Asking not how the world is affecting me, but how I can effect some positive change in the world.
Or, as my therapist puts it, “getting out of my own shit.”
The 12-step program presents that principle a bit more politely. Paraphrasing: Find salvation in service. Drop your lone wolf defenses to help other addicts feel less alone. And I have been putting my hand up when opportunities to serve my recovery community arise. The difficult part for me isn’t leading an organized meeting, sharing my feelings within the circle or even taking our group’s treatment center speaking commitments. It’s the unstructured aftermath, when the urge to run as fast as I can right back into my precious comfort zone overtakes me — and I do, literally run out the door, or punch Zoom’s “leave meeting” button and pull an Irish goodbye the second the scheduled hour is up.
I haven’t run from the fellowship, though, so somewhere deep down, my natural instincts are telling me what I have to do: Push forward — inch forward — toward uncertain destiny, when I want to pull back toward comfort and safety. Or if I feel like I can’t move, just stay. Wait and see what the universe has in store.
Cocoons are so cozy, but they are built to blossom into butterflies, after all.