A couple of days ago, I pulled a green wool coat out of the wardrobe in the bedroom I currently share with four other women in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. I haven’t worn this coat since maybe mid-November, and as I put my arms through the sleeves and stuffed the pockets with my bus pass and headphones, I was suddenly brought back to a scene I’d found myself in frequently last fall: me, sitting on a bench on the elevated Red Line platform near my apartment, sweating heavily despite the cold breeze that whipped across the platform, hands shaking, a cold stone of anxiety amid a swirl of nausea in my stomach, a bottle of iced tea in one pocket and a half-pint of Jim Beam in the other. Me, realizing it was drink or ride into downtown feeling like my skin was on fire and my brain about to burst. Me, looking first one way and then the other before dumping half the bottle into the iced tea and taking long, grateful gulps before the train’s headlights were even in view.
Until sixty days ago, this was my life. Round-the-clock drinking, drinking like taking medicine, drinking precise one-and-a-half-ounce pours of liquor every hour so that I could brush my teeth or feed the cat or go to work. Drinking at least ten drinks a night, every night, to erase the day that had transpired before. Drinking that was—at least at some point and for a little while—fun, turned suddenly into a terrible chore I couldn’t stop doing.
I’d been drinking and using drugs since high school, and while problem drinking had turned into alcoholic drinking just a few years ago, I’d been abusing substances since I first tried them. I have no “satisfied” button. When I get hold of a feeling that I like, I want more and more and more and more and I do not want to wait. Before I had drugs and alcohol, I had food, and it was the same story there: always more, never enough. There has been, for as long as I can remember, a hole inside me I can never seem to fill, a plethora of overwhelming emotions, and an inability to feel any semblance of comfort in my own skin.
At the end of January, this year, I decided I had had enough and began treatment for alcoholism. For the last sixty days, I have been re-learning how to live and how to be a sober person. Slowly, I have begun to notice changes: I can sit still for more than three or four minutes. I can listen and pay attention. I remember people’s names easily. I’m doing crosswords again—a favorite pastime that went by the wayside when I stopped being able to focus for more than a couple minutes on anything. Every night, before I go to sleep, I read for about twenty minutes from a novel. I reset with intention. I brush my teeth twice a day. I notice small details that, before, I’d been too distracted to take in—like the color of a friend’s nail polish or their new haircut. I pray, though ask me to whom and I will tell you that I am still trying to figure it out. Every minute, every day, I feel as though I am waking up.
I also feel like I am starting to forget. The details of my drinking and drugging begin to fade as new memories form at the forefront of my mind. Sometimes, it seems like another lifetime in which I sat alone at bars with my face buried in my phone, speaking to almost no one and caring only about the booze in the glass in front of me. In the AA meetings I go to daily, I am told to be cautious of this forgetting. I must be vigilant, they say, ever on guard against a disease that will attempt to fool me into thinking I can control it. I try to remind myself every day, but sometimes it isn’t easy.
A week ago, my housemates and I came home to find one of our fellow women in recovery acting strangely. She was on dinner duty and kept disappearing while she was cooking. More food was making it into her mouth than into the pots and pans on the stove. While frying up chicken rolled in tortillas, and as the rest of us sat at the table catching up on our days, she vanished again, leaving the pan full of oil and food bubbling over a flame turned to high. After dinner, we went to a meeting and came back to find the house a mess. When we each took a turn blowing into the house breathalyzer, she blew a .16—twice the legal limit.
Seeing those numbers light up on the little black machine was a confirmation of what I’d quickly suspected upon arriving home that evening. She’d been drinking, quite a bit, and when I’d first noticed her odd behavior—too-loud talking, disappearing suddenly, creating a tornado of mess in the kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom—I’d known without a doubt that she was drunk.
I hadn’t been around a drunk person since I’d gotten sober. I didn’t expect to feel so strange and so uncomfortable and so angry. But when I saw her, I saw myself. She was a mess—I knew what that looked like because I’d been one too. Even so, her trail of destruction and how well I knew it wasn’t what disturbed me the most. It was her desperation. Despite being brand-new to the house, despite knowing that we were all subject to random urine screenings or breathalyzer tests, despite her close proximity to a bunch of other alcoholics and addicts, she went out and bought a bottle and drank. It was stupid and dumb, and it was like a thousand stupid and dumb things I had done too—most of them seemingly far beyond my own control, as my addiction pulled me this way and that like a wilted puppet.
All it took for her to find herself back at the beginning was one bottle, one drink. I realized watching her that it’s the same with me. All it would take is one walk around the block, one firm push against the door of the nearest bar or liquor store. Watching this woman crumple like she did, I suddenly saw my sobriety as something like a priceless artifact in a museum, an asset to be guarded and protected by any means necessary. I saw it as a fragile, new animal that needed constant attention and care so that it could grow to be as strong as possible and hold up to anything the wild might throw at it. I saw it as a treasure, one to hold close and tight and never let go of or trade in for anything else. I saw all the days of sobriety that I had already earned and all the days I have yet to earn spread out before me like the answers to a question I had forever been asking myself, which was: How do I do this? How do I be a person? I saw my newfound sobriety, and I saw that I never wanted to start from the beginning again.
— Anastasia Sasewich is a Chicago-based freelance writer. You can view her work here.