Trigger Happy

By Dana Bowman 03/27/17

Alcoholics will be triggered by sadness or stress, but some triggers are not tragic at all. In fact, they can be wonderful.

A hand holding a gun with a "BANG" flag coming out of the barrel
All of these things have made me long for a glass of wine to lift.

Ever since I was a kid, I had a dream to write a book. It would be about some beautiful heroine who is spunky and self-reliant, and how she dazzles the world. My novel would achieve best-seller status, of course, and would be just a teensy bit autobiographical.

I did write a book. It is about an aging heroine who thought she was totally self-reliant, but she became too reliant on wine instead, and then she got sober. It was not a best-seller, but it did okay. Also, it was totally autobiographical.

And just like that, my dream came true.

One of the my first thoughts, after signing that book contract with my special Montblanc pen and some flair, was this, “Wow. We should celebrate. Too bad we don’t have any champagne.”

Yep. The irony is strong here, I realize. But, so is the alcoholic.

Triggers can be tricky. I like to think that life is simple addition, but triggers write themselves as common core story problems. If an alcoholic is on a train, set to depart for a booze-free business trip at 3pm, surrounded by 40 drunken salespeople, how many texts to her sponsor will happen before panic sets in… That sort of thing. The easy answer is that alcoholics will be triggered by tragic events or stress-inducing circumstances. I had a friend in recovery who had to deal with the death of her father, her own divorce, and a move, all in the same two-month period. She told me once, “After all this? I think drinking a whole lot of bourbon would be what every other person on the planet should be doing right now.” There was a silence on the line. And then, she added, “But not me.” Thankfully, she stuck to her conviction that alcohol was no longer an option, and she is still sober today.

What throws me, however, is how some triggers are not tragic at all. In fact, they can be wonderful.

Weddings. Christmas pageants. The announcement of a baby. All of these things have made me long for a glass of wine to lift, if only momentarily, for those around me who are so very happy. This altruism, paired with a searing case of social anxiety, is a challenge. The good news is that most happy events such as this come with an advance warning. People don’t usually suddenly alight on our house with wedding showers in tow, anyway, and so I have extra time to ponder the invitation, the gift, and the tools needed to do the fete sober.

But the real problem here is that my triggers can be as unplanned and fleeting as spring flowers. In fact, springtime is one such trigger. I can be working in my garden, marveling at the new warmth of the soil, the grape scent of iris, and suddenly I am wondering where my glass of wine will be after all this hard work.

Or, after tucking in both of my boys after a particularly cute episode of bath time and jammies and “I love you mommy's,” I find myself floating downstairs on that elusive bubble of a Good Parenting Day. I almost dance to the couch, the husband, and some Netflix, but then I still hear that tiny voice scratch at me, “Wine? Now wine? The babies are sleeping! There was no crying! Celebrate!”

And then, there’s the weirdness that is my Netflix queue. So many movies are packed in there, and some are so beloved that I watch them repeatedly, huddled up with my popcorn and my grapefruit La Croix. But this year my Netflix queue rebelled against me. Love Actually is a favorite, and I was looking forward to singing along with Bill Nighy and his crap pop song, but suddenly, everything about this movie was wrong. After all this time, all I could think was, “We always opened a bottle of red for Love Actually. They go together like wine and cheese. And there’s not even cheese here.” I let those triggery thoughts simmer for just a bit too long, and before you know it, Nighy and Hugh and even the beloved Alan Rickman had to go, banished from my Netflix queue.

It’s confusing. This funny movie with its sweet airport scene and its grand handwritten gestures claiming “To me, you are perfect”—how could it betray me? It’s all twisted up in my alcoholic’s brain. I have learned that when these things get twisty, like fishing line, the best thing to do is cut them free.

Why do lovely moments snarl? Why does something as simple as laughing with my husband about Bill Nighy’s singing make me twitchy?

I think the main reason is fear. I fear the fleeting aspect of happiness. I fear it leaving, and I know it must be made More. It must be a memorable thing, or there should be some sort of marker or acknowledgment. In my world, life needs to be an ongoing ticker tape parade.

Spinal Tap is another such movie that kind of aches at me. It was one the first movies I saw with my fiancé, now husband, when our dating life had been heavily festooned with margaritas and Johnny Walker Red. Spinal Tap was a test I inflicted on all my suitors, and so the pressure was on as we queued it up. I wanted to watch Brian’s reaction to the mockumentary. It was crucial, you see, that he find it funny. Then, we could continue.

But now, I look back on that movie and see more irony. When I was drinking, I wanted every bit of my life to “go to eleven,” like the long-haired Nigel tells the reporter about his amplifier. Every fleeting moment needed to be augmented and wrung out for all it was worth. Such a life ends up looking rather stretched and ridiculous, like Nigel’s leather pants. Back in my drinking days, so many simple, happy moments ended up excessive and sloppy because of the alcohol.

Triggers come and go. Tragedy happens and the happy events do too, and I let the triggers pass me by. And thus, I celebrate the balanced joys of recovery.

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