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On Drinking and Belonging
I didn’t drink in high school. I was lucky enough to have friends that didn’t really either. You might think that was a testament to the way my parents raised me, or the Sunday School classes I came up through. Maybe. I think I didn’t drink because the opportunity never presented itself. I never felt like I wouldn’t drink. I’m much more curious than that. And I give a few fewer fucks.
I drank beer at a frat party my first night at the University of Oregon. As one does. I didn’t know shit about drinking and was on guard, but relieved. I’d pulled it off. I belonged. Even if I was a newbie. I could swing it.
I turned nineteen at said college a few weeks later.
Somehow the path life took me on involved getting sober a week before my 22nd birthday. Three years after that first drink. I wasn’t getting sober from alcohol, per se. I was getting sober from drugs. Hard drugs. Cocaine and methamphetamine and the marijuana, ecstasy and pills that fall in between. When you get clean from such things you also get told you can’t drink. Ever again. So, I didn’t.
I got sober at twenty-one and didn’t drink again for almost seven years.
Sobriety sucked sometimes. I struggled with how “othered” I felt outside the cocoon I’d built at home. I struggled with how much my budding career in the helping profession pitted me against happy hours, wine fueled paper-writing, and end of the day drinking to “take the edge off”. I felt like a fish out of water, often. I sat in classes where we studied oppression based on race, religion, gender, sexuality, age and ability and wondered why we were recruiting baby social workers to events with a drink as the dangling carrot. Where was the acknowledgement that some come to this field via recovery? Where was the space to be “disabled” by drink? Where was the awareness I saw us so painstakingly developing around our language and actions in regards to other issues?
What I learned from social work school is that sobriety sets you apart. It might even limit you in your career and the connections one inevitably benefits from developing.
When I entered the workforce I longed to shed my sober skin. It felt old and tight and limiting. But I’d been told in so many anonymous rooms (and more than my fair share of residential rehab centers) that to drink was a death sentence for me. Drinking would lead to drugging and drugging would kill me. I’d pick up right where I left off and I’d find the disease had festered and grown while I was “away”.
The weekend before I attended my first work conference, I went with a dear friend to a Fiona Apple concert and had two drinks beforehand. I broke my nearly seven years of sobriety. I made the choice to drink.
At said conference I drank–and I belonged. It was like a sweet relief after years of fitful wonder and damn near paranoia. It was like I was putting my degree to good use. After all, my professional role was to foster connection with the various entities attending said conference. Plus a mentor had told me the secret to conference relationship-building: share a drink on the plane. Nevermind that we flew out at 7am.
And since I’m a huge introvert, those social lubricants really do help.
I still don’t regret the decision to break my sobriety for a second.
Though there was the painful, eventual, conversation with my husband. The one who had walked beside me, from meth addiction, through rehab and early recovery, and, eventually, into sustained sobriety. It hurt to tell him I was rolling the dice with my life. Because that’s what I was saying, no matter how sweet the sugar coating.
I thought my eating disorder would keep my safe from drinking. That sounds weird, but it was true. And, of course, I didn’t identify my ultra-healthy, super-Paleo, diet as an eating disorder at the time. I thought I’d never put my “health” or “wellness”, er, weight on the line for something so superficial as an opportunity to drink.
I was right in some regards and wrong in others. In this regard, the idea of progression was fairly true. At first, I was happy with a drink or two. At first, every other week or so was plenty. As the years passed I struggled not to drink nightly and a drink or two turned to three or four. “Social” drinking became solo drinking. Because, introvert.
But when I did drink “socially”? You know, at nail salons, or $30 happy hours, or airports, or work events, or over dinner. Then, yeah, I had it going on. Then, I was normal. Then, I belonged. I’d made it. Who cares about the other times I drank? Who cares about that stubborn last layer of fat I was sure I could shed if only I could kick my newfound drinking habit?
Who, really, cared? No one. Everyone was drinking.
And that is the crux of it. “Everyone” begets everyone. Appearances matter. I didn’t have it in me when I entered my field to cut my career off at the knees by being sober. I couldn’t do it. I still don’t know if I can. Drinking equals belonging. Abstaining is akin to othering. Outing oneself. Either you have a drinking problem (ouch) or you’re pious (and likely placed on a pedestal for your restraint).
I’ve enjoyed four years of social drinking. I’ve benefited from my ability to belong. I’m terrified to give that up, for a week or a month, or a year, I don’t know. I’ve deepened so many superficial relationships over drinks. I’ve watched whole groups bond over the course of an alcohol-fueled night. I’ve drank my way through a dozen conferences at this point. Drinking is a great equalizer, an easy leveler of the playing field.
Right now, I’m giving that up. I’m giving that up because I need to see what else is out there. I’m giving that up because I’m ready to test myself, for at least a minute here. Notice I can’t commit to much beyond the present. I hate the adage but I adore the meaning: one day at a time. I don’t want it to be true, but it is. I can only speak for today. If I’ve learned anything in this life thus far, it is that. And when you speak like I do, in words for the world to read, changing your mind can seem a flip-flop, maybe even make you a hypocrite.
I’ve also learned I get to be exactly who I am at any given moment. That is invited, okay, and enough. Anyone who thinks different doesn’t concern me.
I’m ready to be more than my ability to belong.
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