Sobriety in Spanish
How a troubled relationship, a foreign language, and a group of Central American gentlemen helped me find recovery.
The first time I told anyone the truth about my problem it was in Spanish.
“I love you,” I told my then-boyfriend. “But I have another love, and it is marijuana.”
He was relieved. He had showed up after a cancelled date to find me sheepish and maudlin, my room reeking of pot. He thought I was cheating on him. I thought he was sweet to care. I was an addict. He was abusive. Our relationship saved my life.
There were a lot of firsts that spring. I fell in love for the first time, and I learned Spanish to speak to the man I was in love with, a Mexican immigrant. I went to rehab, and my boyfriend helped support me as I dealt with early sobriety. The Spanish came rapidly, spurred by the chemicals of new love. My vocabulary expanded apace with my recovery and our relationship: I learned to say bed, bike, withdrawal, orgasm, craving, condom, pregnancy, jealousy. I learned to describe the intensity and agony of days without alcohol or weed's buffer in broken Spanish.
One night he came home from work to find me huddled under the blankets of my bed without an inch of skin showing.
“What are you doing?”
“I have the fear.”
“What are you afraid of?”
I hadn't anticipated how sobriety would exhaust me, how needy and child-like I would be, how little I knew how to do after years of self-neglect. My boyfriend taught me how to make my bed and how to cook. He cleaned the kitchen and did the laundry. When I told him that I had had athlete's foot for years and didn't know how to get rid of it, he shook his head and knelt to apply the medication between my toes, every night for a week until it was gone.
I had never had anyone care for me like that. The chemicals of early sobriety and the chemicals of new love together are a heady brew. We met in February, I went to rehab in June, we got married in August and I filed for divorce in March of the next year. No one said they didn't see it coming. He said he would never give up on me, that I was his one true love and he would kill himself if I didn't return. I fled.
My sobriety started in Spanish, but my recovery happened in English. My husband was the only thing keeping me sober for that first year; he forbade me to go to meetings because he was afraid I would meet other men and cheat on him. When I left him I got into a twelve-step program, fast, and I worked it hard. Leaving him was like a withdrawal all over again. I cried. I complained. I hid from the fear. I tried to fall in love again. Like the drugs, it's never as good as the first time.
I'm not a scientist so I can't testify to the crazy cross pollination of neurons and synapses that must have happened those first few months of sobriety: how love, withdrawal and language got tangled together. I can tell you that I missed speaking in Spanish in a way that was physical, the way I missed sleeping next to him, the way I missed the ability to roll a spliff, sink into the couch and disappear. I went out of my way to speak it when I could: to the cashiers at the gas station, the nice ladies at the laundromat. My heart would beat rapidly as the familiar words rose in my throat. The conversations always led to him. Within minutes I would be saying his name, telling our story and then crying. I was a mess. He was a wound that wouldn't heal.
I quit smoking cigarettes, a habit he had always detested. I called to tell him and to thank him for my sobriety. He asked me to come back. I changed my phone number. I went back to school to become a drug and alcohol counselor, something he had told me I'd have to forgo in order to have his children. I called to tell him I was grateful for his role in my recovery. He asked me to come back to him. I changed my number again. At four years sober, I had a complete emotional breakdown. I called him. He met me. He asked me to come back to him. I said I had plans to travel for a year, but I would decide afterwards. He said I wasn't allowed to leave. I fled.
The first few months in South and Central America were hard. Every dark-haired boy reminded me of him. When I opened my mouth to speak our common language I felt as though I were removing my heart and holding it out to be beaten. The feeling wasn't unknown to me. It was like the first time I walked out of an AA meeting, convinced that I had somehow become transparent, that every person who saw me now saw an admitted drunk proffering all her dirty secrets to the world. I tried inside jokes on the dark-haired boys, flirtations I'd learned from our courtship. They didn't quite understand but they were willing. I slipped into the feeling of love and out of it a dozen times a week. Like the drugs, it's never as good as the first time.
Then I found a room full of folding chairs in Antigua, Guatemala. The group of old Guatemalan men who gave my recovery back to me had a set of qualities that are hard to define. They were at once courteous and gallant and abrupt and unreservedly kind. They probably didn't expect a sweaty turista to stumble into their club with tears in her eyes, clutching her five year chip and blushing every time someone said hello, but they took it in stride. I stayed, even after I'd found an English speaking meeting across the street. I'm far from fluent and I found it hard to follow the speakers. The meetings dragged on for three hours at a time sometimes and the coffee was terrible. But I stayed, because occasionally one of those dignified old men wearing their best suits would ask me to speak. And I would get to tell my story in broken Spanish. I would talk about fear and cravings and first loves of many kinds. And the old men would nod. In English-speaking meetings I was used to playing my story for comedic effect. I never earned a single laugh in Guatemala. The words I knew were too simple for this. In many respects, they were the most honest words I've ever spoken in a meeting.
On the day I celebrated six years of sobriety I brought a cake to the Antigua group, as is tradition in Guatemala. Somebody else served sweet corn tamales. When I stood to speak, I realized I didn't have any of the words I needed. The language was the same, but the story had changed. I was once fluent in a narrative of gratitude to my husband, the man I credited with saving my life. Without being aware of it, each word I spoke in Spanish was, for a very long time, intended for him. And then, after months of practice, that part of my brain went dark. I left him for the final time. The story I told in broken Spanish was the story of a recovery I had earned. The lump of familiar guilt and gratitude and love did not rise in my throat as I spoke. My words were childish, my grammar rudimentary, my accent flat. The old men rose to their feet and applauded anyway.
Bobbi Anderson is a pseudonym for a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about the problem with sober counselors.