Life During Wartime: Early Sobriety

So sorry I’ve been AWOL these past couple of weeks. I’m in an MFA program, and we had our big residency week last week. It’s always completely draining, especially for those of us many years out of university, but this one was particularly brain-sucking. I graduate this time next year, so I sat through the “graduation requirements” meeting at which all those thesis and other deadlines got articulated. It’s not that I didn’t know they were coming up. It’s just the fact of them being spoken into public air made them all too real.

In years’ past, I would have needed a drink (or ten) to calm the panic that meeting stirred up. This year, I settled myself down with the thought “thank God I’m not drinking anymore.” Because I’m going to need every one of those formerly wasted hours and brain cells to get finished.

But that’s not what I wanted to write about.

Before I left, I commented on UKAnnie’s blog (Dappled Path, currently shut down, I believe, but that is often a temporary state) with a link to a live performance of the Talking Head’s “Life During Wartime” (link at the bottom of the page). I want to elaborate on the point I was trying to make there. And in doing so, I want to emphasize, this was MY experience of early sobriety. I know it’s not everyone’s, and maybe not anyone else’s. So I’ll make that disclaimer here, and go on as if the rest is the word of Buddha — and you all will just have to make the necessary adjustments.

When I was first gobsmacked with the realization that I had to get sober, I was in a state that feels very much like David Byrne sings and dances in this video clip. It wasn’t a matter of figuring out whether I was an alcoholic or devising some sort of moderation plan (I had noodled on both of those for years). Nor was it an endeavor I saw as a clear path to mental and physical health — like taking up race walking or eating more vegetables. I was petrified. I did not know what was happening to me. I did not know what to do to survive beyond doing everything I could not to drink minute to minute. I was willing to try anything I thought might work — and that included walking into my first AA meeting, 90 in 90, and, had that not done it, rehab or medicine. I did not know — and this is the important part — whether I would survive, whether I would escape the addiction. I just knew that I had to try.

“This ain’t no party. This ain’t no disco. This ain’t no fooling around.”

Had I not been this desperate and scared, I would have continued to half-ass sobriety attempts, making excuses about why I couldn’t stop drinking now, or maybe I didn’t really need to. I had to make stopping drinking my number one priority.

“No time for dancing, or lovey dovey. I ain’t got time for that now.”

One of the things I love in this clip is the way the whole band is in constant motion. They are working so hard. And that’s the way I felt at the beginning. I spent all my time working so hard for my sobriety (and when that voice came that said — but you need to take care of your family and your job too — I had to answer, that’s what I’m doing. Because this war is threatening us all). I went to meetings, I got a sponsor, I read books and blogs, I walked and ran miles, I took up yoga, I gave up parties, I learned to meditate, I did sit-ups, I ate donuts, I journaled, I read books on religion, I volunteered everywhere that would have me, and I would have checked into a rehab facility. The only rule was no rules, no plans, just action after action, minute by minute, to stay sober.

“Trouble in transit, got through the roadblock,
We blended in with the crowd.
We got computers, we’re tapping phone lines,
I know that that ain’t allowed.”

And you know what? I didn’t keep doing all of that. I kept what worked. I discarded what didn’t. I became what I needed to be to not drink that day. To survive.

“We dress like students, we dress like housewives,
Or in a suit and a tie
I changed my hairstyle, so many times now,
I don’t know what I look like.”

What I did not do was plan ahead. Because I knew (know) myself. If I decided the way to get sober was to go to a meeting…tomorrow…or the doctor…next week…or to stop drinking…on Monday, I would have a new plan the next week that put it all off until the week after that. I could have (and did) stay in the planning and reading and researching stage for a very long time. Which is how one should behave if one is buying a new home or adopting a dog — not how one should behave if one is fighting a battle for one’s life. In that case, you do what you need to do in the moment to make it to the next moment.

“Burned all my notebooks, what good are notebooks?
They won’t help me survive.
My chest is aching, burns like a furnace,
The burning keeps me alive.”

The burning kept me alive too.

Now watch the video, and I want to make one more point.

There’s so much there — paranoia, fear, insanity, sure. The very real feeling that this may not work — there are no guarantees. But also, dare I say it, there’s a pulsing, thrilling euphoria that was unavailable to me during my drinking days. Surviving is a rush! It’s terrifying, and it’s so hard, but it has all the beat and energy of real life. Yes, you will get to the better sleep and calmer outlook and peaceful afternoons with the family — but even in those first awful days, you will feel more alive than maybe ever before.