I took tiny bites of the salty, fiery veggie pho spiked with Sriracha and lime juice, normally my go-to hangover cure for its stomach-settling and head-clearing powers. My head hung low over the bowl as I struggled to look presentable, appear sharp and interested in the informational interview in which I was engaged. I was four paychecks away from unemployment, a terrifying prospect given the utter instability of my personal life. Deeply in credit card debt, new marriage scraping the rocks, interpersonal dramas playing out every other day, emotionally enmeshed with a long-distance boyfriend, drinking spiraling out of control, I had gone to this networking interview to try and save myself from total crisis. I seemed unable to reduce or stop my alcohol use, to clear the confusion and panic from my mind, to not act on my almost constant outrageous and high-risk impulses. I wanted so much to engage in pleasurable activities that I ignored the risks or consequences. My life was blowing up in my face, my behavior hurting, offending and scaring my friends. I was a runaway train, pedal to the metal, going right off the rails. Even so, I had the wherewithal to understand I had to stay employed, and for a few weeks I had been frantically searching online for jobs. A colleague friend who was pending layoff right along with me had a lead from one of her friends, and had set up this lunch.
I tried another little sip of broth, hoping to quiet my nausea, or at least provide my trembling body with ballast, realizing I’d had nothing but coffee since the night before.
I listened to Elyse describe the position and the office culture, my head pounding, brain swirling with fog, emotions a jumbled mess. Needless to say, it wasn’t a position of strength from which to court a new job, which I saw as a final vestige of a sane life. Images from the night before crowded my mind, those scattered pieces you collect the morning after a brown-out drunk. Burning champagne guzzled from the bottle. A lap-dance. Puffing a thickly-rolled joint. Rolling off the bed and staggering over to the laptop (smartphones were not yet ubiquitous) to facebook message my long-distance boyfriend. Sending him another message; struggling to type. Another message. Another. Overhead lights snapping on. Alone in the apartment, reeling at 5 a.m.
My newly-minted husband and I had invited our girl friend over for a nightcap, which had quickly accelerated into him running out to the store down the street for more champagne. It was a cold black January night, holidays over, nothing but winter dreariness ahead. We had a plan for staying warm, and it involved having her over for drinks, among other things. The three of us had been drinking hard together since the darkness of fall had descended, a run of partying that looked like it would continue on into spring, then summer.
She and I started sipping brut out of flutes, for the class element, and the first bottle was done almost before it was opened. While my husband was out restocking our supply, I sat in her lap, holding up a large joint and grinning as she squealed her approval. We lit up. He came back with more bottles. We sipped up. The tension grew and when she excused herself to the bathroom, my husband and I exchanged a look.
But even then, anything happening in the physical realm was secondary to what was happening electronically–the emotional affair in which I was engaged with a man on the East Coast who I’d met once, a few months prior. We had been spending upwards of thirty hours a week communicating with each other between gchat, facebook messenger, email, texts and phone calls. The time difference worked to our advantage, and so did my husband’s complete lack of interest in his new wife–me. The wonder of this new man, the magnetism, was that he read and responded to every single nuance of every single line I wrote him. He was keenly interested in anything, everything I wanted to share with him. And share I did, my guts spilled out, the wall I’d carefully constructed around my emotions falling right down from his attentive care and concern. He was a lonely, desperate drunk too, recently dumped and snubbed by a girlfriend, his first since his crushing divorce. We were perfect for each other, our need recognizing itself in the other, latching on and sucking away, twin black holes, no limits, no boundaries. Need begetting need.
And now my colleague Pam and I were headed to lunch, to see if we could line up new jobs before the research dollars dried up, leaving us unemployed at the end of our current projects at the University. It was the dawn of the Great Recession, and we were terrified. She had been contacted by a friend who worked in a different department at the University, in an office that was hiring for several positions. It would be best-case lay-off scenario, a smooth transition within the same institution.
We’d had this lunch on the books for over a week, and as much as I wanted to impress Elyse and come across bright-eyed and competent, getting shitfaced and staying up all hours the night before had prevailed. My intention was to secure my future through stable employment. My behaviors suggested my intention was to destroy my future.
I’m not sure how I came across to Elyse that day during our lunch in a hole-in-the-wall pho restaurant, windows steamed over, place buzzing with students and University staff. Maybe I was still pulling off “normal”. Maybe I didn’t look as bad as I felt. My shaking hand reached for the glass of ice water before me and I took a long swallow, nodding at what Elyse was saying, trying to fight through the hangover toward some semblance of active engagement.
I had stumbled into work around 10 o’clock that morning bleary-eyed and aching, after a restful three passed-out hours. Apparently the evening had come to a close that morning because I had become so sloppy and out of it my husband and girl friend were revolted, the mood dead. When the lights came on she and I shrank away, shrieking and covering our faces like vampires, not wanting to be seen all smudged and smeared and wan; that I remember. She was too fucked up to walk the mile back to her apartment, and no one was in any condition to drive, so my husband called her a cab, waiting outside in the freezing pre-dawn with her. Ostensibly he wanted minutes alone with her, and I certainly wanted to resume compulsively checking my electronic messages, knowing my East Coast man was up and at ‘em, due to respond any minute from work.
Work. Fuck. We all had work. It was Friday, a blow-off day, sure, but physical presence was required. I somehow peeled my leaden eyes open, and I must have slumped into the shower, dressed, and driven myself to the office. I don’t remember. One minute I was shrinking from the glare of the living room light and the next I was at my desk. I was utterly physically miserable, a dead thing washed up on the beach. My head felt wrapped in cotton, blood pounding until it seemed it would burst through my ears. My body trembled, my hands shook. I was nauseated. My joints ached like flu.
Champagne is a vicious lover, my East Coast Man remarked, once we fired up our chat window. Dance yourself clean, he suggested. I turned up my computer speakers and slowly pushed myself away from my desk. I stood and weakly began to move to Friendly Fires, a Friday office dance party favorite. It wasn’t working. I had zero energy, and my knees were knocking, threatening to buckle, forcing me to sit back down.
After a while of staring blankly at my computer screen (ECM had skipped out to meetings and our chat hung in the cloud) the inevitable emotional hangover began its slow seep, invading my thoughts, compounding the physical agony until I knew for sure I was a worthless, fucked up, undeserving, lower-than-low, disastrous piece of garbage. I stewed in the knowledge that I was losing myself to alcohol and drama, that I was off the wagon in a big way, it was no longer a joke, no longer within my own control.
I had come to the understanding that I was an alcoholic not long after my twenty-first birthday. After three years of binge-drinking, depression, and anxiety, I started my senior year of college sober, having decided I could no longer handle alcohol. I’d started drinking at age seventeen and had immediately believed alcohol to be my missing piece, the key to fitting in, feeling safe, being cool, enjoying life. Having an extensive family history of alcoholism meant I was genetically predisposed to addiction, and it’s no wonder that from the beginning I became a binge drinker who frequently blacked out. Once that fuzzy, loose feeling buzzed through me, it was glug-glug-glug until I was gone, never wanting to risk a decrease in buzz, always wanting to go deeper and darker into the bottle.
My first dry spell lasted seven years, and then poof! it ended the night of my bachelorette party. I was off the wagon, but it was totally going to be fine, because I was an adult now, college over, and I could trust myself to make good decisions. Yeah, that’s how a progressive illness works. You’re in control. Right.
Five months after my spectacular nosedive off the wagon, I was in this hot mess. I couldn’t think straight, or make a healthy decision to save my life. I was embroiled in all kinds of dramatic situations with friends and enemies, and yet I wasn’t ready to stop, take my foot off the gas or even take a night off. I was suffering from a severe case of FOMO, and if I wasn’t out there on the scene, or in constant contact with my ECM, I felt lost, spiraling into an oblivion that had no end. In my worst moments, like that Friday morning, I was terribly emotionally restless, an all-encompassing black hole, desperately drawing any and all energy to me, striking out, floundering, seeking contact and attention. Pathetic.
I made it through the networking lunch, hoping to apply to the new job with Elyse’s endorsement. I left work early to spend the rest of the afternoon and evening in a ball on the couch, numb and immobile. At a loss.
The weekend arrived, and I scraped myself together, forcing myself to the gym, determined to work the hangover out of me. At the end of line, my hangovers were running anywhere from three to five days, starting off with flu-like physical symptoms, and ending with crushing emotional angst. During college I would spend those days in bed, sleeping all day, skipping class, emerging from my room in the evenings, on the nights I had work. At twenty-eight I hardly had that luxury.
I stepped onto the treadmill and began speedwalking, staring straight ahead, physical punishment and sweat my goal. Within fifteen minutes my heart was racing, my head buzzing, a dizzying weakness pulsing through me. I knew you were supposed to stop, to get off the machines if you felt faint, but I was sick of my own bullshit, and pressed on. My head was swimming with accusations, that I was ruining my own life, that I was making irrevocable mistakes, that my marriage was ending less than a year in, that I was alienating myself from people, that my life was one drunken episode away from a total collapse.
And then something shifted, slowly passed over me, and I lost control of my mind. Something slipped, is the only way I can describe it, and I was no longer creating and controlling the abusive, punitive narrative. I was in the grips of something outside myself, a force so powerful it consumed me, spinning my thoughts out into an incomprehensible mush, filling my head with static, making my ears ring, vision snowy, and before I blacked out I hit the “stop” button and got off. Deliberately, carefully, and breathing slowly as not to pass out, I got myself to a bench and sat with my head between my knees. Every breath in restored a little of my sanity, every breath out solidified my position in reality.
It was now undeniable that I was losing my mind because of alcohol, and in that moment, I knew if I didn’t stop drinking I was going to die. I saw the future, and it looked like a woman on the street, drunk. A person who has said “fuck everything” and gone full-time bottle, no more choices, no life.
I was well into my second day without alcohol, my as-of-yet final hangover, when I committed to stopping drinking. I had glimpsed the bottom and sensed a total loss of control, while un-intoxicated. Self-erasure while drunk had been one thing–something I craved and chased and did again and again. But feeling that while sober…that was a reality I knew I couldn’t live with, and I believed I had reached the end of the line, my last chance before permanent, irrevocable damage was done. I stopped.