Drinking Through Cancer Treatment - Page 2

By William Georgiades 06/06/13

It wasn't until I completed treatment for breast cancer that I finally realized I had a problem with alcohol.

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In March of 2011 I called Intergroup. Even though I was aware that there would be an alcoholic on the other end of the line, I was humiliated just saying hello. I asked about meetings and where I could find them. I did nothing with the information because simply placing the call seemed like too much of a surrender. I called again in April, and then in May. On May 14 I went out for my last drink with that colleague, confessing that the next day I was going to walk into an AA room. I asked a different friend to come with me; I couldn’t fathom going alone. I stepped across the worn threshold knowing in the core of my being that I’d never have another day of hazy happiness and ease. When the chairperson asked if there was anyone counting days I didn’t know what that meant but raised my hand. I wouldn’t say my name, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to follow it with, “and I’m an alcoholic.” I didn’t share my day count for another 16 days. The first time I heard laughter, at a particularly horrible story of degradation no less, it was a revelation. What on earth was so funny, and wasn’t it cruel to be laughing at details so intimate and shameful? But I went back, marveling each time that I could feel in tune with a room full of drunks sitting cross-legged on dented metal chairs, gazing up at unevenly painted walls, sharing their tales of woe, of how they set foot upon the craggy, winding road of recovery, and how they stayed on it.

Being sober also means finally extruding what it meant, and means, to have had cancer.

For nearly a year I couldn’t do certain things that I loved because they were so tightly entwined around alcohol, my estranged best friend. I couldn’t take long hot soaks in my deep bathtub because a glass wasn’t perched on the edge. I didn’t sit on my stoop, knees drawn up, watching the parade of life on my Greenwich Village street because there was no bowl filled with ice nestling a bottle of white bordeaux, hidden behind a planter of geraniums. Every night as I read in bed I ate spoonful after spoonful of sticky almond butter drizzled with honey to replace the bedside cup that I used to drain even as my lids drooped.

But little by little I became ambulatory in the world around me, like putting weight on a sprained ankle, reducing the swelling with an icepack of patience and willingness and humility. So much humility for a grandiose, defiant control freak was unimaginable, but I worked at it. I’m still prone to flagellating myself for my past and looking with wariness at the future. I sometimes miss the bracing possibility that a booze-fueled night may take a wild and unexpected turn. “They sicken of calm who knew the storm,” Dorothy Parker wrote, and I know what she meant. But in exchange I’ve been laid off from the second job I had of obsessing about alcohol: How I’d get to it, how I’d hide it, how I needed to quit it.

My extra time is now filled with actually doing the things I used to talk passionately about doing, wine sloshing in my glass as I held forth about the ills of the world. The animation was more buzz than commitment. I’ve become involved in wildlife conservation and animal welfare issues, and while it can be painful and frustrating to face the daunting work that needs to be done, and the emotionally draining realities of it, I know that my efforts, modest but sincere, are actions I can be proud of and part of.

Being sober also means finally extruding what it meant, and means, to have had cancer. It means not being numbly cavalier, and not tamping down the enormity of a life-threatening disease. The prospect of again hearing those awful words delivered by a somber doctor are never far from my mind. But I also know that, for right now, I’m not stacking the deck against myself. I’m daring to live.

Erika Masterson is a pseudonym for an editor in New York.

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