A few months back, one of my counseling professors shared an assignment she’d given students in her undergrad addictions class: They had to write a break-up letter to their substance of choice.
It struck me as a powerful, meaningful exercise. I mean, if you really wanna know what it’s like for an addict trying to get sober, you’re going to have to process some pretty intense grief.
I guess that’s what this blog has been for me: one long “Dear John” for what seemed like the most intimate and significant long-term relationship of my life. Quitting drinking felt like losing a huge part of me, and almost three years later, that still stings from time to time.
Alcohol was a true, loyal BFF for someone who always avoided close friendships IRL, and there was a time when stripping “forever” from the equation seemed unthinkable. Impossible.
(Not to make light of a serious issue, but when I think about my decades-long love affair with booze, I can’t help remembering the old episode of “Pee Wee’s Playhouse” where Pee Wee marries the fruit salad. 😂)
The relationship did start lightheartedly, that’s for sure. It was spring 1997, and I was a 19-year-old, late-blooming college freshman running around at “Dillo Day,” Northwestern’s end-of-school-year festival, and between catching rays and tossing frisbees, someone handed me a tiny bottle of Lynchburg Lemonade (or was it Downhome Punch? 🤔). And just like that, it was all over. I was a goner. I underwent the universal addict’s awakening: “Where has this BEEN all my life?!?”
I’d been a tightly wound, Type-A perfectionist wracked with anxiety, and this little bit of liquid had *poof* set me free! I was fixed! I remember floating around the rest of that day like a bird on the wing…or, to belabor the metaphor, a teenager in love. It was the most magical moment I’d ever experienced, and I spent the next 20+ years — until July 7, 2019, when I was 41 — trying in vain to recapture it.
If I was going to write a break-up letter, honestly, it wouldn’t be to alcohol itself. It wouldn’t be to an enveiled mini-bar bottle, or any kind of physical being. It would be to that moment. That feeling — of pure freedom, of flying, of instant, effortless escape. I miss the certainty, illusory as it was, that no matter what kind of anxious or uncomfortable situation I found myself in, as long as I could find some alcohol to drink, everything would always be OK.
Giving up my substance was, in that sense, the death of a dream. I was hooked on the idea of an “easy button” that would close the gaping hole I’d been feeling inside for as long as I could remember.
Realizing that no such quick fix exists…that nothing can save me but me, and I alone am responsible for my happiness, is a rude awakening and a bitter pill, rolled into one. Who really feels strong enough to handle life’s heavy lifting, all on their own, all of the time?
Make no mistake: This reckoning needed to happen. It was the best thing that could have happened, considering the alternative was basically death. I sit here now, exactly six days from my three-year sober anniversary, having made it through plenty of challenges and changes without coming close to a relapse, with at least a fighting chance to live a fulfilling life, and “grateful” doesn’t even begin to cover it.
I’m especially thankful for my husband, who’s still by my side after 15 tumultuous years, showing me every day what a real best friendship is all about.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t still grieve, don’t still occasionally feel a profound sense of loss wash over me without warning.
I suspect I always will.
I mean, maybe someday, I won’t get emotional when I smell meat grilling on a summer’s day, or smoke from a neighbor’s chimney in the winter, or any kind of fire, anytime or anywhere. Maybe someday I’ll be able to listen to every song, or enter every eating/drinking establishment, without getting hit with an onslaught of nostalgia so strong it brings tears to my eyes.
Or maybe, the very slow, gradual process I’ve been going through over the past three years will just continue to take its course, and those feelings of grief will get less and less intense with time — just like with any other relationship that ends.
You can’t rush the healing. You can’t instantly or easily fill the hole. In fact, I’m not sure the hole ever gets completely filled. It just gets smaller, little by little, day by day. Unlike that fleeting, artificial high that makes alcohol addiction so all-consuming, wholeness is a subtle sensation, and you have to really be paying attention to even know it’s there.
Recovery is not, in my experience, a romantic story. It’s real, and while that makes it complicated, and sometimes quite painful, that also makes it worthwhile.
I definitely don’t feel strong enough to handle life’s heavy lifting all on my own, all the time, but I am still doing it. I guess this blog is not really a break-up letter to my substance, but rather an open letter to myself. It’s a reminder: You not only can get through this, girl, you are.
I can’t think of a more powerful, meaningful exercise.