Overcoming Denial and Facing My Alcoholism
I didn’t like her. I didn’t think anyone would. Who would like a woman with a self-destructive drinking problem and special talent for hurting people? When I wrote Kiana, the main character of my novel, she disgusted me – the way she lied, the way she spoke to people, a sharpness to her comments that cut to the quick anyone who threatened to get too close. I shook my head in disappointment with every decision she made, and I rolled my eyes with impatience every time she stumbled over her own lies.
I was approximately twenty pages into Kiana’s story when I got stuck. The scene I was writing was a particularly important one, and I didn’t know what Kiana needed to do, but it had to be something despicable, and I didn’t know what she needed to say, but it needed to be hurtful – selfish, shameful, and overflowing with guilt.
So, like I always do when I get stuck in a narrative, I took to my journal.
I planned to write, give myself a writing prompt and write my way back into the scene. Instead, I pushed myself away from my desk, grabbed my drink, and went into my bedroom. I lowered myself to the floor, folded my legs beneath me, and pulled out my old journals. I read passages and poems, dreams and nightmares, story stops and starts.
It’s hard for me to describe what happened when I went into my journals. But there’s a poem, by Lucille Clifton, which captures it exactly. In “It was a Dream,” Clifton writes:
It was a dream
in which my greater self
rose up before me
accusing me of my life
with her extra finger
whirling in a gyre of rage
at what my days had come to.
i pleaded with her, could i do,
oh what could i have done?
and she twisted her wild hair
and sparked her wild eyes
and screamed as long as
i could hear her
This. This. This.
I read my journals as if a stranger had written them, realizing that I’d never really gone back and read them before. Some of the entries seemed strange to me, others so intimate I suddenly felt naked and splayed. I sat there accused of my life.
Splattered and spilled throughout the pages were the reckless ramblings of a woman who forced down anger and buried jealousies, a woman haunted by insecurities who discounted her own desires.
References to things and people threatening to “swallow me up” and descriptions of my process, “I reward myself with cocktails. I punish myself with cocktails” caught me quick. Questions like, “Who do you want me to be?” and “She looks at me like she loves me. What have I done?” screamed up at me from the page.
I read through drafts of stories long since published, ideas yet to take shape, but I stopped on all the furious letters I’d never send, aching apologies I’d never deliver, and malformed memories I’d never fully recall.
Is this what my days had come to?
Much of what I’d written, I’d written drunk. Instantly, I sought to disprove that realization. I flipped through the pages frantically. Journal after journal. I hadn’t really written everything drunk, but I couldn’t take solace in that discovery because most of what I’d written, when I hadn’t been drunk, had been written in various stages of drinking or being hung over. How could I be certain? Because it was in that moment that I realized that for a long while that’s all I had ever been – recently drunk, almost drunk, or currently drunk.
I was drinking then, stuck in that scene, my foot tingling and aching, smashed between the hardwood floor and my ass. I looked over at my drink, about two fingers of Maker’s left in the glass, and my stomach lurched. I stood up, my journals falling from my lap, snatched my glass, and poured the whiskey down the drain in the hall bathroom. I took the bottle of Maker’s from the counter in the kitchen, and I poured that down the drain in the kitchen.
I’ve never told anyone this story. And before that evening, I had never in my life poured alcohol of any kind down the drain.
I went back to my desk and wrote the rest the scene. I continued writing until my eyes burned. And in the morning, I didn’t fix myself a morning cocktail, didn’t add any rum to my juice or whiskey to my coffee.
I wrote sober. Yet, everything that Kiana, the stumbling, sorry alcoholic, needed to say and do came to me with an uncanny ease, faster than I could type sometimes. It was easy because I knew her, and I figured my sobriety was about finishing the novel, seeing this broken, drunken character with sober eyes to write her as completely and honestly as I could.
I tried my best to make it about the novel, but as I wrote Kiana’s story, I couldn’t help but turn my sober eyes inward. I couldn’t help but see myself completely and honestly.
I called black-outs “time traveling.” It sounds cooler and more exciting. To be told stories about your behavior without a single, clear memory of the events mentioned filled me with a shame that I masked with chuckles and high fives. I have entire nights that only exist in Polaroid snapshots; blurred and out of focus, they are the only memories I have of some of the places I’ve been, some of the people and things I’ve done.
I woke up on too many mornings, the light hurting my eyes, my throat burning from vomit and cheap rum, with an apology on my lips, uncertainties making my chest tight, unsure of what happened, who happened, or why.
I’m sorry I slept through my alarm, late for work with the taste of booze still thick on my tongue. Sorry I’m broke because I spent my last closing out my tab. Sorry I kissed you or slept with you because I don’t even remember our conversation at the bar. I’m sorry I pretended to like you. I’m sorry for the times I acted like I cared, and I’m sorry for the times I acted like I didn’t. I am so sorry.
Sorrow like that comes from guilt and shame, two emotions that accompany self-destructive behaviors. Self-destruction?
The term gave me pause. I found myself filling out questionnaires I had previously avoided. The ones on sites like www.ncadd.org, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependencies, that have you checking boxes about memory loss (time traveling), financial problems (I didn’t even remember buying that bottle at the strip club), driving while intoxicated (or falling “asleep” on trains or in subway stations – it’s how I lost my cashmere scarf in New York), being drunk for days, and being uncomfortable or upset if alcohol is not available (this is sometimes masked as calling places that do not have a full bar “lame” and taking a special pride in always carrying your flask).
I checked “yes” on twenty of twenty-six questions; my score an accusatory finger.
Reading back through the questionnaire, I tried to ways to explain away my responses or even change a few, but a voice rose up each time, a sharp piercing plea: Don’t be a liar.
So, what could I do? What could I have done?
This: I finished my novel completely sober. I wrote through every emotion, every fear. I went all in, even when it hurt.
This: I opened myself up to my family, my lover, my close friends. I shared my anxieties. I described my fear and explained my shortcomings. I sought love and understanding.
This: I deconstructed my relationship with alcohol and found a treatment plan that challenged me to take ownership of my behavior and my feelings. I found an approach that forces me to take responsibility, requires my honesty, and holds me accountable to my greater self.
Denial feels a lot like safety, and some might argue that ignorance is bliss. Yet the disparity between the life I was living and the life I wanted to live could only be found in asking myself difficult questions about my drinking patterns and behaviors then answering those questions with honesty and accountability.
Being charged by my greater self is hard, and each day I look at myself in the mirror and acknowledge my failures and triumphs. I approach every day with a sense of purpose and understand that life is a series of decisions.
There’s a Yoruba proverb that says, “the one who knows the truth does not die like the one who does not know.” So, almost two years later, I find myself working toward dreams and goals that are clearer now than ever before. It’s not always easy, identifying my triggers and doing the work of facing my anxieties and frustrations, owning them instead of drowning them in drinks. But knowing what I know about myself and my relationship with alcohol, I cannot help but make different choices, choices that put love and life first, choices that, hopefully, make me by greatest self.