My Big Fat Sober Wedding

By Taylor Ellsworth 05/02/12
The most embarrassing thing I’ve ever done—marrying a friend, Britney Spears-style—didn’t happen when I was a practicing alcoholic. I did it once I was already sober.
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There’s something about being young and sober with a little free time on your hands that seems to drive people to absurd lengths for some sort of imagined relief. In a way, it's hard not to be self-righteous about sobriety at 18, when everybody you know—outside of the rooms—is celebrating their youth at bars every night. This martyrdom—for me, anyway—served as a justification for all sorts of destructive behavior, from sleeping around to chain-smoking cigarettes to breaking into fenced-off hot tubs in the middle of the night to consuming energy drinks like they were baby carrots to getting knuckle tattoos. And I guess this is how I’m able to justify having married a friend in Reno. 

Derek was one of those guys who enter recovery in their teens and hang around for a few years before getting any real work done, staying sober off of pride, new tattoo addiction, and constant late-night fellowship. His nails were never clean and he always knew exactly what to say to strum the most insecure chords of my self-obsessed psyche. He spent his free time covering the most heavily trafficked parts of the city in graffiti and stealing bikes; his persona was actually nearly identical to the destructive stoners I dated serially before sobriety. Nevertheless, I befriended him. This was my early-sobriety M.O.: waste away my days with guys my age, flirting for the attention rather than to satisfy any real attraction while talking about how much I despised all of the so-called slutty girls we knew. 

There are few things that can top getting legally married as a joke on the list of impulsive, alcoholic decisions.

One night, Derek and I were sitting at the open-late coffee shop that is practically the property of recovering alcoholics and addicts in Portland. My first sober summer was coming to an end, it was almost time to return to college for my second attempt at academia, and we wanted to do something exciting and memorable. Living in a part of the country that rains nine months out of the year, I’ve romanticized summer all my life; but when the real thing comes around, it’s always somewhat disappointing, like Christmas day at eight years old, when all you can do is cry inconsolably once are no gifts left to unwrap—or maybe that’s just me. I was regretting the days I’d spent inside next to the fan complaining about the heat, or the extra shifts I’d picked up at work in lieu of going to the river. Seizing that particular moment, despite its insipid quality, felt like the most important thing in the world at the time.

Derek was hassling me, as he always did, by making jokes about how funny it would be if we were married. I rolled my eyes—he was only doing it because it elicited this dramatic, childish reaction in me—but I didn’t know how to react any other way. I was sick of listening to him, and somehow my frustration turned into a dare. 

“Let’s just fucking go get married then! Let’s go to Vegas right now. No, Reno—it’s closer.” I was joking, hoping it would shut him up. It didn’t.

“Hey! Will you drive us to Reno to get married?” he asked the first few people we knew who happened to cross our path at the coffee shop that night. Then he began to shamelessly ask total strangers. Eventually, Lana—a redheaded woman we knew from a young people’s meeting—agreed to take us, as long as I did most of the driving. Lana was considerably older than us, but she fit in. She had perfected the art of the girlish persona—she was always ready to react dramatically to teasing—but she was 40 and had a sense of humor that set her apart from the other sober girls I knew. Steven, a scruffy blonde 20-something, also relatively new in recovery, was up for the adventure and decided to join us. 

The trip was doomed from the start. No less than 30 minutes after we’d packed up the car, I saw the flashing lights of the police in the rearview mirror. My heart jumped into my throat and I blindly jerked the wheel to the right, crossing two lanes and pulling onto the shoulder in about five seconds—miraculously avoiding colliding with the huge truck in my blind spot—the whole thing happened in slow-motion, in a surreal, out-of-control daze. The cop noticed my near miss, but strangely let me off with just a warning for speeding. Steven’s abrupt panic attack, the second bad omen, happened just minutes later. After the police run-in, his nervousness and anxiety began visibly mounting. Fiddling restlessly, he muttered, “You guys, I think that was a really bad sign. We should just turn around—we’re only an hour away from Portland.” We refused. We dropped Steven off at a motel in a nearby city, where he could take the Greyhound home the next day, rather than turning around like he’d begged us to. 

I felt it was too late to admit that what we were doing was crazy; we had to continue to believe it was a thrilling adventure. This was, of course, not true—turning around was definitely still the best option—but I was too ashamed of my own poor judgment to admit awareness of it. It was like going to H&M on a bad day, spending an hour digging through clothes five sizes too big and too small, and buying something that doesn’t fit because there’s an unspoken obligation to not leave empty-handed after devoting so much time to the hunt. Not surprisingly, the trip quickly became a sweaty, emotional mess. Road trips are always a good test of a person’s true nature under duress. Stuck in a confined space with no outlet for pent-up energy, living off of Sun Chips and gas station coffee, listening to the same 10-song pop radio loop with the Nevada sun blazing through the window, would bring out the worst in anybody. By the time we got to Reno, we had driven 17 hours, stopped multiple times to hash out screaming matches between all three of us, and sent mass texts to the majority of our mutual friends explaining what we were up to and complaining about each other. I just wanted to get the farce of a wedding over with and get back home.

The wedding itself was awkward and the chapel stunk of cigarettes and disappointment. The place we’d chosen (the first one we saw) gave us a ride to an office where we filed for the marriage license. I remember signing my name on a piece of paper and handing it to a bald man who made way too many jokes to be a government employee. The crusty limo chauffeured us back to the chapel, where I giggled my way down the aisle. The man who married us said a prayer I didn’t know and sent us on our way. Derek, Lana and I ran off like three kids who had just gotten away with drawing with crayons on the walls. Derek had certainly pulled something off—later, he spent the next several months randomly appearing at my apartment with expectations to maintain the friendship we had once had, but I had begun to hate him for bearing witness to my stupidity. He borrowed money. He ate my food. 

I went to a meeting as soon as I could after we’d arrived home. The first familiar face I saw, a gruff, angry-looking guy named Jeff, asked me what the hell I thought I was doing, getting married to an idiot like Derek for no reason, and I realized immediately that I didn’t have an answer. I didn’t have the old excuse of disoriented drunkenness that I hid behind for so many years. My support group, always ready to “call me out on my shit,” as they say, was not impressed by my cutesy excuses about being young, crazy, and reckless. I couldn’t afford to be that person anymore, couldn’t bear the humiliation I felt walking into a room of peers who knew what I’d done or the remorse that stabbed at my stomach when the guy I actually liked told me how stupid he thought my whole adventure was. It was all enough to make me want to drink, just so I could forget how much I disliked my sober self, and how similar she sometimes seemed to the despised drunk version.

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