Six Years Sober, But One Day at a Time

By Kerry Neville 03/12/17

I was exhausted from crawling on bare hands and knees for all those miles and miles of the past two decades of my life, crawling through hell.

A Saguaro cactus in a desert silhouetted against pink clouds and sky, sunset
"Don’t forget where your journey back to life started.”

If you’ve been part of a recovery program, these are the words—One Day at a Time—that pull you out of early sobriety’s swamp of panic, shame, and despair, the muck that sucks at your ankles and guts, that buries your heart so that you can’t feel anything but the next drink, the next drunk, the next drowning. You ruminate on the past, on all the ways you have failed and fucked up (rages, blackouts, especially all the I promise to drink less I promise not to get drunk I promise to stop drinking all of it always). You project forward and imagine failure, the impossibility of being able to do what you have not been able to do for years, for decades, for a lifetime (How will I get through the party, the game, the exhaustion, the celebration, my life without the booze?). How will you stay sober and not need the next first drink and the one after that and after that? So, this immersion in present, concentrated time—just this one day, this one hour, this one minute—matters, as it frees you from expectation and dread. One Day at a Time is the promise of balance, compassion, and hope.

But here’s the sober truth of One Day at a Time: nothing was being taken away from me. 

I was terrified when I stopped drinking. Everything in my life felt out of control—my mental health, my job, my marriage, my parenting—but what I could control was my drinking. Or rather, the choice to drink. Of course, that choice was always Yes and Another. Not drinking meant that choice to disappear into drunkenness was being taken from me. Being drunk was a temporary reprieve. Hide and Seek. I could hide from shame for a few hours, from feelings of unworthiness, from a belief that I was unlovable, and become the funny, daring, magnified me. But shame is clever and always checked under the bed or in the closet or behind the dresser where I was hiding. Nothing convinces you to pick up the next drink more than a head splitting hangover, or stumbling out of some stranger’s apartment in the early morning, or vomit on your clothes, or pee in your boyfriend’s bed. Please, yes, just blot it all out.

But here’s the sober truth of One Day at a Time: nothing was being taken away from me. In my willingness to leave the muck for the open field, everything—my life, my future—was being given to me.

Exactly six years ago today, I was in a psychiatric hospital because I was suicidal, had once again veered beyond the safety of the guardrails. The prior afternoon, I had attended a baby shower and had adamantly, indignantly, most assuredly promised my then husband I would not drink. Something I’d been promising for years, and even though my husband installed a lock on the liquor cabinet (his ambivalent support of my sobriety), I’d been drinking whenever a chance presented: emptying wine glasses left on dinner tables, sneaking drinks when my husband forgot to lock the cabinet—a swig of vodka, a swig of scotch, a long gulp of ouzo—trying to keep all the bottles level, and even, at a desperate moment, draining a bottle of vanilla extract when baking chocolate chip cookies for the kids. Alcoholic Limbo: “How low can you go?”

I don’t remember the baby shower, or coming home from the baby shower, but I’ve been told I disappeared into the kitchen and furiously chugged a bottle of wine. I woke up in the hospital, my arms once again hacked with scissors or a knife, determined to die. How could I live with all that shame? How could I live with all the shame that would surely come again and again? 

My husband stood beside my hospital bed and said, “If you can’t get sober this time, you don’t come home.” My promises meant nothing because he didn’t believe me anymore and I didn’t believe I could ever keep them, anyway.

But my children were waiting in the waiting room, waiting for me to return to them. In hindsight, an easy decision: death via drink or life via love. 

So, I went to an inpatient, recovery program in Arizona. The desert landscape had a profound effect on clarity, especially when sobering up. All those canyons and mesas, the blue expanse of sky, the blood red sunsets, the brilliant sunrises, and the tall saguaro cacti with their sharp spines. That was me, all my sharp spines exposed. Nothing around for miles and miles, just land and sky coming together, scraping against me. I was exhausted from crawling on bare hands and knees for all those miles and miles of the past two decades of my life, crawling through hell. In the desert? No place to hide—all my prickly spines glared in the blazing light.

At an off-site sunrise twelve-step meeting, Dana, a teeny-tiny, wiry cow-gal with beautiful curly black hair that fell to her hips all the way from her Stetson, took me aside and placed her hand on my shoulder. “Look,” she said, “I’ve been where you’ve been. I see the shame and fear about ready to kill you. But I promise you, it’s going to be okay, you’ll see. Right now, you look like something is hunting you down. But when you give in to wholeness and not give up to brokenness, you’ll find that you can stop running.”

I nodded, agreeing to be agreeable, but recovery seemed like a mirage, some shimmering, unreachable oasis. But Dana was right. I was hollowed out, gaunt and crazed from running away, running myself into the ground, into dust. Time to stop and breathe in truth and light and grace and hope for one day, one hour, just one minute.

One morning, just after sunrise, I wandered up the trail behind the residential building towards an enormous saguaro cactus I’d been contemplating for weeks from the smoker’s porch. It reminded me of the crucifix that hung over the altar in my childhood church. I’d long stopped believing in God and was having difficulty believing in a Higher Power, but I did believe in the material world and its astonishing variety of hardship and beauty. That cactus was something I might pray to.

As I got closer, close enough to fall into the spines which seemed like a good idea, like my necessary past due punishment, like a penitent’s reverse hair shirt, a bird suddenly flew out from a large hole in the stem, wings spread with a streak of yellow underfeathers. A Gilded flicker. And then another bird, and then another, flying out of what might have been the cactus’s heart for the sky. The answer to my prayer or prayer itself.

When I left the Arizona program for home and my kids, Dana gave me a long, tight hug, then slipped the silver bracelet studded with turquoise beads from her wrist and slid it onto mine. “So you don’t forget where your journey back to life started,” she said. 

As I write this, I look down at my arm, still banded with the flash of turquoise and silver, and I think of that beginning day, that first hour, those first minutes in that sunrise meeting, of how parched I was when I arrived in the desert and how truly blessed and loved and forgiven I am right now, on this day in this hour at this minute of my sixth year of sobriety. While I still try to live one day at a time, I also have hope for a reliable future. I am clear of the muck, the worst of it anyway, and stand in the middle of a wide, open field. Or maybe, I am still in the middle of the desert and recovery is not a mirage but real. I am a tall saguaro cactus, sharp spined, but in improbable bloom: white flowers blossom in the dark and Gilded flickers fly from my heart.

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