Six Weeks Until Christmas
Chapter 13: Brain New World
I’m writing this on the last day of January, having “graduated” IOP. A couple of months ago, I watched Tom pass a similar milestone and was in awe of him. Three months, ninety days, a quarter of a year, all seemed impossible. Merely considering it felt like a challenge. During this time, I noticed mental and physical changes - gone are the shakes, sweats, self-hate, tears and fears.
But I’m still an alcoholic. When I left the center into a dark, cold night, I walked along Montrose and stopped by CVS for toothpaste. I felt happy with myself and my achievement, even slightly euphoric. I walked by the wine aisle and felt an even greater desire than my first month sober pang.
Think about that for a second, and you’ll get into the psyche of an alcoholic mind. I’ve been drinking alcohol for just over twenty years, drowning in alcoholism for at least seven, three of which I’ve flirted with complete self-destruction. I nearly lost my job, went to rehab, began recovery, faced challenges in other cities, started to understand about my diseased mind, began to learn about myself and my own spirituality, but on the day I officially demonstrate growth by graduating, I feel an urge to drink. There go those dopamine receptors.
It’s not the alcohol. It’s my alcoholic mind.
My desire forty minutes ago was the reason I wanted to capture this period in my recovery. If you are still reading, you will have noted fluctuating mind states along the way, the likes of which I never experienced in such a short period. Confusion, fear, relief, temptation, learning and belief are natural stepping stones in recovery. I am beginning to understand this. In a perfect world, I’d step out of rehab and shoot into an advanced stage of recovery, sidestepping the turmoil of self-examination and the myriad of emotions that followed. It doesn’t happen like that.
During IOP, we were encouraged to process our experiences as addicts. People openly shared their pain, guilt, fear and anxiety. The longest pauses were not heard during those parts of the session. They were at the beginning of the evening when asked how we were doing today. Aside from talking about work, most people kept their answers brief. I asked a classmate if he felt reticent when asked this question and he replied, “I wish it was possible to share what’s going on in my head, but I can’t summarize it, nor is there time to tell it all. Talking to Karen is great, but I still have so much more to discuss, and it seems like there’s a lot of changes going on aside from the obvious.”
It was heartening to hear this because I’d questioned the volume of thoughts in my own head, so much that my internal dialogue was bordering on subconscious gossip. Penning them was my outlet for expression. I hope in sharing them, it allows people to view the early stages of someone recovering his life after coming close to drinking it away.
If I’m still sober, God willing, how will this read in six months? A year?
When I reread about the day I failed the test and the time spent in rehab, it is difficult to comprehend that is only two full months ago. It’s me but a dramatically different version, and it’s uncomfortable to look back at that person. Reading my expanded IOP essays on drinking and the depths I plumbed is even more uncomfortable. I’d like to talk to that person, but would he listen? He had to want to listen. He had to want to change and believe that change was possible. He had to embrace the role of his Higher Power and place faith in Him.
It’s important to harness the memory of those darker days in my recovery because it helps me appreciate life. As my recovery continues, I feel the pace of my life slowing nicely to the point where situations that would have previously vexed me have presented opportunities to demonstrate compassion and acceptance. Instead of feeling a need to control situations, I’m happy to cede that urge now.
For example, a week ago I was traveling home from Los Angeles. I was waiting with my case at the curbside check-in. A family was in line in front of me, loading between eight and ten large items of luggage for their travels. I heard a number of sighs directly behind me, then watched cigarette smoke float over my shoulder and nestle into the young boy’s face in front of me. The boy and his sister, both about six-years-old, appeared bemused by everything going on as mom and dad looked stressed by their cargo and documentation requirements.
Sighs quickly changed to a number of insults.
“I thought Christmas was three fucking weeks ago.”
“You’re holding everybody up.”
“Think you could have checked your shit in earlier?”
During my drinking days, I would have not used the language, but my mental chattering would be in full swing, with a thirst for a drink beginning to make my palms sweaty. I looked at the family and thought of the numbers of times I had been in transit and the stress it brought on me traveling alone, never mind with a family. The father struggled with what looked like a cello – yes, peculiar packing – so I left my case in sight and, with his permission, picked up the side he was close to fighting with.
Once it was loaded, I stood by their trolley and started offloading their cases to him, freeing mom for the paperwork and to stand nearer her children. I then let the agitated woman have my place in the queue. It took all of ten minutes, but having the presence of mind to help someone else was never in my alcoholic radar at such a juncture. Back then it was focused on getting through the queues to feed my habit. My prayers and meditation provide me with a different perspective on how I see and hear things with a new set of eyes and ears.
I still feel raw from the experience and am learning to live in my “journey”. That journey is teaching me the power of connecting with other people. I felt that tonight at my last IOP while saying goodbye to people I had shared my darkest secrets and fears with during the last couple of months. There is a great deal to be said for surrendering and admitting that we don’t have all the answers. I asked myself plenty of questions during my addiction, but my drunken mind could not see for the haze. That haze has cleared, but I still need guidance from others in staying on my journey. It pays to maintain vulnerability.
Joining a twelve step program is underscoring everything I do on a daily basis. It provides me with a foundation to build on. Some of these pages have captured an emergence, growth, awareness and change, but to maintain those elements I must apply myself to the twelve steps every day. Working them offers a freedom in my life which I didn’t think was possible when I left rehab. When I first got out and went to New Orleans, I thought, life without drink, is this what it will be like every day? It’s nothing like that perception courtesy of the steps. Living them compared to living as a dry drunk reminds me of the quote by Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption:
“I guess it comes down to a simple choice really. Get busy living or get busy dying.”
Placing my Higher Power first and applying the twelve steps has allowed me to start living even with the baggage of the past because for now there is only now. It’s important for me going forward that I work with fellow alcoholics and especially those new to sobriety. These words are my first attempt at doing so and I am now going to explore more opportunities. I always wanted to write a book and envisioned it being a kind of ode to one of my favorite sports team, the Red Sox or the Saints. But if penning my struggles and short recovery finds its way into the hands of one person who needs help, it trumps any tale of triumph in sporting endeavor.
Connecting with others remains a gift I’m truly grateful for. On my way home, I stopped by the gas station to buy gummy bears because CVS didn’t have my favorite brand, Haribo. Jose was working behind the counter. I needed milk, too, and headed over to the refrigerators. Off to the refrigerator for the one-point-five liter of wine and a little something else, Jose was thinking. This was the opportunity I wished for during my drinking days – to walk up to Jose having purchased regular grocery items and nothing else.
I went to pay.
“No wine or beer?” he asked, in complete shock.
“No, my friend. I stopped drinking.”
“This is great,” he exclaimed with a smile, as I slid my dollars under the glass screen. “Not great for our profits, but great for you.”
I’m grateful to be living. Thanks for letting me share.
About the author Simon Tait
A communications professional with over 15 years of experience in public relations and freelance journalism, Simon graduated with a bachelor’s degree in publishing from Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland. For the last ten years, he has worked in the energy industry within the public affairs and communications sphere in the United Kingdom, U.S. and Asia. In his spare time, he contributes to sports and men’s lifestyle publications and has written accounts on recovery for the National Council for Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.