I once read that there are two types of drinkers–the type without a family history of alcoholism and the type with. The type with history was known as sensation-seeking. I can’t help but feel like this phrase describes my life now. I feel like I am out there looking for sensation constantly, the next high. I’m not talking about substance abuse here. Since getting married I feel even less settled and certain about the future, in the most unexpected and delightful way. I’m reminded of a question we ask our survey respondents at work: did you want so much to engage in pleasurable activities that you ignored the risks or consequences? Every time I ask that question I see myself in it. It’s like I’ve connected with a part of me that I thought I lost long ago–the impulsive Kate who is always looking for a rush of some sort. It feels so good that I can’t help but wonder if there will be a crash. And when there is will I even care?
These words, written by my 28 year-old self in a facebook “note”, (if anyone remembers that apparatus), revealed itself to me in an fb memory from 2008, the year I married and took a nosedive off the wagon. I shuddered reading it, and remembered writing it. At the time I was working at the university’s school of social work collecting data on women subjects who were grappling with mental health issues and substance abuse and addiction. I was going into the homes of our respondents with a laptop computer and asking them questions like, did you want so much to engage in pleasurable activities that you ignored the risks or consequences? No one ever said yes. But as I sat with woman after woman, week after week, asking the same questions, I began to see myself in that statement. I began to mentally answer yes to that question. I began to push the boundaries of the pleasurable activities in which I was engaging, ignoring the risks or consequences.
The spring and summer before my wedding were a heady time. My fiance and I had been back in our hometown for the better part of a year by then, and were making all kinds of new friends who were introducing us to all kinds of new friends and everyone wanted to party and hang out and do stuff together. The social outlet was electrifying, and I would find myself propelled in all directions, rounding people up and making plans. I worked with a lot of my new friends and I’d decide, on the spot, to have a party that weekend, and I’d walk up and down the levels of the store until I found every last pal, asking if they were free and did they want to come by?
When I left that job I made new friends who were absorbed into the fold. Everyone was hitting it off with everyone, and we were getting together all the time, and always had something on the books, something to look forward to. My fiance got a job in another city and that was a whole new group that absorbed us into their fold and soon we were racing up and down I-5 to see this group or get back to that group. Then we got married, and that was the party to end all parties, the one where all the groups collided and everyone got along and that just served to make the next parties that much bigger and more frequent and by then I was off the wagon, back into the bottle, big time.
Getting back into booze reconnected me with the long-lost self who struggled with impulse control issues, always chasing the next rush. The eight year-old who, before an audience of classmates, threw a large granny smith apple into the girls’ room toilet, causing it to clog and overflow, was high on the attention and the risk of getting in trouble. The ten year-old who kicked in the back door of the abandoned house in the neighborhood to explore, heart pounding with the danger of being attacked or arrested. The thirteen year-old who sparked a lighter and aimed a jet of hairspray at the flame in her friend’s basement, eyes wide and breathing heavily from the rush of fire that could ignite the room. The sixteen year-old who turned the lights out in the school gym during a basketball game, plunging the court into darkness, then prank called as many classrooms as possible, hands shaking, hysterically laughing from the risk of being caught. This was all sensation-seeking, an attempt to feel something at the center of a consciousness gone numb.
My impulses are wild and many. They come up constantly, have no context, and urge me to do random shit that’s socially inappropriate, at best. They occur to me out of thin air. Put your gum out in that girl’s hair. Grab that flight attendant’s ass. Take that person’s laptop and fling it into the street. Tear open that guy’s shirt and stuff your face into his chest. The impulse pushes into my consciousness, and I dismiss it, often wrinkling my nose and thinking, really? This has been happening all my life, at least since I started school. And when I have an audience, I’m all but powerless before the almighty impulse that could shock and awe the people. And god forbid someone dares me to, because I will do it then and there, panting in reckless abandon, every nerve ending on fire. It’s all worth it, the risks and consequences, for that moment spent sailing off the edge, before I hit, knowing I’m out there, free.
It’s no wonder I became a drunk the first time I drank. Alcohol took me to that place of wild abandon. Then it took me beyond, where my most outrageous impulses had been driven underground, and invited me to explore any and all that I could summon.
I remember broken shards of the New Years Eve when I returned to alcohol. I knew before then, weeks before, actually, that I needed to stop drinking, that I couldn’t do it successfully. Always looking for a rush of some sort, I’d been experiencing plenty of crashes since I’d picked back up the bottle. Hungover, shaky and regretful at my desk at work I’d ask myself, are you ready to be done? Have you had enough? And for weeks the answer came back from deep inside, no. Not yet. No one was going to take what I sensed was my last opportunity to get drunk on NYE away from me, certainly not myself.
It was a bad party we were throwing. People weren’t getting along in one of the friend groups, and other key people had called out sick or drunk. Things were tense and awkward and so I bee-lined for the kitchen, poured myself a pint glass of vodka, sucked it down in seconds and slammed downstairs to the street below. Then I was kissing someone, a stranger I’d simply grabbed as she was walking by. Wild impulses. Cigarettes burning bright in 30 degree weather. Two young vets cringing at the fireworks going off and talking about how it’s taken so long to be OK with them since coming back from Iraq. Then this jagged, confusing sequence where my husband’s angry face, lips pursed in disapproval, appeared at the apartment building’s vestibule door, somehow knowing I was thinking about taking my top down for the group of men surrounding me on the sidewalk, then I’m looking down and seeing that my breasts are exposed, that I am caught in the act. Wild impulses. He drove everyone out of our apartment that night, unable to get control of me.
I needed to settle down, to take a night off, to spend time alone with my new husband talking about the future, making plans. Instead, I had the metaphorical pedal to the metal, bottle in hand, heading straight off a cliff. Sensation-seeking. And hey, like I noted earlier, would I even care when the crash came?
Yes, I would care, because the crash involved just about every part of my life. I lost my job, my housing, my marriage, most of my friends. I destabilized my finances and jeopardized my health. Once the destruction was complete, the sought sensations felt on all levels, every impulse acted on and burned out, I could no longer ignore the risks or consequences. The pleasurable activities had abandoned me, and I sat alone on a mattress on the floor of my best friend’s parents’ basement, head in hands. Sometimes I would look at a photo from my wedding, just six months earlier, at the joy captured there, and shake my head. What the fuck had gone so horribly wrong?
Booze. That’s what had gone so horribly wrong. Sure, there were other things, like overdoing social engagements, and spending time with the wrong people, and losing myself in relationships, but booze was what lit the match, touching it to the highly flammable surface. I often wonder how that year during which I was drinking for five months (five months is all it took to destabilize me completely!) would have played out sans booze. Very differently, I believe.
And so I am reminded, on the eight year anniversary of the last time I drank, of the absolute destructive power alcohol holds over me. A friend also in recovery once described there being a flaming sword between her and booze. I don’t go to AA because I don’t believe in god, and because I do believe AA is a cult, though I know it’s helped countless people like me. I don’t surround myself with other people in recovery because I find that community stifling and self-righteous. Sometimes I go to a bar if there’s a band playing I want to see, or friends are going and there’s really good guacamole. I don’t go to wineries, because what’s the point? I go on vacations and to parties where people are using alcohol and I never want any, it does not touch me. I am not triggered. I do not crave. There is a flaming sword between me and any bottle. I do not wish the sensation crossing the line would bring.
Periodically I wonder if I could just do one last big drunk and I know exactly what I would choose to pour down my throat and then I remember that I have a progressive disorder and might not get out alive this time. And I think about all the misunderstandings and bad feelings engendered by my impulses raging out of control, unchecked, set free by booze. I think about the life I’ve recovered and how every year without alcohol is better than the last, a little more feeling restored at a time, and I set out to seek sensation elsewhere.