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Stumbling Over The First Step

It’s taken over three years to finally get to the point where I know I can’t drink.

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By Anna Davies

01/29/13

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The first step in AA—that we’re powerless over alcohol and our lives have become unmanageable—is pretty easy to grasp at the first meeting, when you’re in a shaky still-hung-over state where most of your energy is focused on not throwing up. It’s evident at your fifth or sixth meeting, when you use your shattered-from-your-last-drunken-night-out iPhone to input other people’s numbers. And the 10th meeting, where you share for the first time and find your voice unexpectedly cracking when you talk about how afraid you are to never drink again—that even though you get the one day at a time thing, you just can’t help thinking about the never-ever finality. 

But then, you get through your second booze-free weekend. The first one felt like a fluke—you slept through most it, watched too much TV, ordered crappy takeout for every meal so you wouldn’t have to leave your apartment. But on the second weekend, you go to a party and sip seltzer. You wake up early to go to yoga. You finally put together that shelving unit you bought two years ago and got around to buying a new phone. In short, you rocked it.

My mind still picks over the steps, turns the words around and tests them.

And, at Monday’s meeting, your gaze keeps wandering back to the steps. Powerless. Unmanageable. That certainly seems to be true in the speaker’s case, but you? You haven’t been that tempted by the bottles of booze still perched on top of your fridge.  You were still able to flirt with strangers on the previous Saturday night, even if it was a million times more exhausting than it ever had been when you were five or six drinks into the evening. And the only thing that seems unmanageable is figuring out how to go on a date—which you have that night—and not order a drink.

Willpower, you decide.  That’s your problem. You weren’t using it before. Now, you will. Starting tonight. You RSVP yes to your friend’s happy hour, making sure to get there before the specials end. You take your first sip of beer and smile, feeling all the built-up anxiety from the last few weeks slip away. How, you think, taking a second sip, could this be the enemy?  

That was my life for three years. I’d admit my powerlessness, I’d go to meetings, and then I’d leave. For a while, I’d be able to stick to my self-imposed two-drink limit. Still, enough meetings had made me aware of the deep down click of the switch in my subconscious after I’d finished a quarter of a glass; an I want more craving that made it impossible to focus on whoever I was with. It would take all my self-control to sip slowly, to turn off the part of my brain that automatically began strategizing how much I could drink, to not take a few gulps from the abandoned half-empty beer on the seat next to me while my date was in the bathroom. And of course, eventually, the desire won out, I’d get wasted, wake up the next morning with a heart full of regret and a phone full of misspelled text messages, and repeat the cycle.

Why was it so hard? Of course, there’s the obvious—that my brain is wired to do anything, including lots of loophole finding and justifying—that’ll get me a drink. But I think the second part that’s been harder to grapple with is how much a part of me actually craved the loss of control that alcohol provided. As much as I hated waking up not knowing what I’d done—or even where I was—I loved the slightly surreal way I’d feel after three or four drinks: the point where I was aware I was drunk, aware my decisions weren’t the best, but didn’t care at all. If I could have stayed at that level—drunk but still aware, drunk but not likely to drop my phone or lose my wallet or pick an epic fight with a friend—then I wouldn’t have had a problem.

And that’s the point—if I could have stopped, of course I wouldn’t have had a problem. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t ever stay in the woozy, detached semi-drunk state, even though I liked it, even though that was always the best part of the evening, before things began to fall apart. Because once I was there, all I wanted was more. 

Other people weren’t like that. Other people could say they had enough, switch to seltzer, head home and watch Netflix. But I’d keep heading back to the bar, ask around to see if people wanted to head somewhere else, or just go to another place on my own. I was vaguely aware a blackout was inevitable, but what was the alternative? At that point in the night, I was too tipsy to be productive, and hated the restless sleep that would always come from going to bed not quite sober. It was easier to order another drink, then another, and just let the alcohol make decisions for me. 

Which brings us to part two of step one: that our lives had become unmanageable. It should have been obvious to me—I went through six iPhones in one year, I lost my wallet so often that even the credit card companies asked if everything was all right as I cancelled my debit card for the fourth time in two months, and I’d destroyed more than a few fledgling romances. But I could always pull it together when I had to. The more meetings I attended, the more this felt like a dare. Let’s see how much more unmanageable I can make things this time.

I think, at least for me, that’s because unmanageability is challenging and I like challenges. Even though it was inconvenient and exhausting, dealing with the aftermath of drinking—canceling credit cards, figuring out who I texted, trying to retrace my steps from the night before—made me feel like a detective. I always felt accomplished when I solved The Mystery of Where My Cash Went or The Case of the Colleague Who’s No Longer my Facebook Friend, as if the slate had been wiped clear of any bad behavior. What I didn’t fully realize was that even though I dealt with the mini-dramas pretty effectively, they didn’t go away—they left marks on my reputation and my self-worth. It wasn’t like I was putting my energy into accomplishments. I was just always trying to keep the status quo from slipping.

And that is unmanageability—it just took me a long time to realize that. I thought it was disingenuous to admit my life was unmanageable when I had a job and friends and was training for a marathon. But it was. And it was all due to the drinking.

I know I can’t drink. I know I need to stay sober for my health, my happiness, my sanity. I’ve known that, for real, for the past nine months. But my mind still picks over the steps, turns the words around and tests them, and I know that’s something I’ll always struggle with. I still hate the word powerless, every time I say it. Deep down, I don’t want it to be true. 

But it is. I don’t need any of my hard-won "what did I do last night?" detective skills to know what’ll happen if I allow alcohol to take charge. And admitting that gives me the strength to finally stop the mental gymnastics and choose the simplest, laziest, easiest answer: No. 

Anna Davies has written for the New York Times, Salon, Glamour, Elle, and others. She has also written about the best addiction novels, among other topics, for The Fix.

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