In early January I was struggling to quit drinking again after a relapse. I would go for a week, twelve days, then find myself walking into a liquor store and buying four nips of Absolute vodka. Yes I’m an alcoholic, my purchase affirmed to the clerk. I had given up caring. Whoosh, the first one down, maybe a second right after, wait a little for the third. At which point I was lost, my preferred state I suppose.
I was obsessed with an ex who had moved on even though I was the one who had ended things. He could keep drinking, enjoying life. His girlfriend was everything I wasn’t: a moderate drinker, financially independent. On Instagram they were flitting around Hawaii in love and I was a hollowed-out shell of nothingness. I was the worst possible thing. He had moved on, I was stuck. I don’t think I have ever been so stuck in my life.
During my stints with abstinence I occupied myself on dating apps, and I’d look at the profiles and wonder whether I could date someone who drank “moderately,” or even “frequently.” Maybe I could drink just for the first date. Somehow this was supposed to make me feel less lonely.
Desperate, I went on-line and bought Antabuse. That way, I figured, my morning resolve to never drink again could be solidified with a drug that would make me sick if I consumed alcohol. When evening came I couldn’t make that impulsive decision. Especially when I was home with my kids, which for some reason was my biggest trigger. Of course, after taking it for a few days I started googling, “How long can you drink after taking Antabuse?” and began planning my binges three or four days out.
My therapist suggested AA. I had tried it the first time I got sober but had never found the right group. Whereas the whole idea is to find community, the one meeting I had attended with some regularity was populated with people who didn’t share my external circumstances. There were no other young-ish moms, no divorced women with children. Somehow AA had made me feel alienated.
But I was desperate. Once again I returned to the meeting list and decided on a noon meeting in a nearby town. I drove there and parked at the library. Before going in I texted my cousin: “My life feels bare and painful. It just keeps on going like this. I feel so alone, and I don’t understand how things got this way.” I put my phone in my purse and joined the throng headed to the sad little building on the main street. I walked in and up the stairs; the hallway had the cigarette-saturated smell of years past. I settled in the back of the room on a big comfortable chair and I liked that the meeting was populated, and that a young woman around my age was chairing. When she asked if there was anyone new who wanted to introduce herself people looked at me but I stayed silent. I don’t remember the substance of the meeting, but afterwards I sat in my car and the sun was out and I texted my cousin again. “I will get though this winter, and I will be genuinely happy again.”
The next day I returned. And at that meeting I ran into someone I knew who told me about another great nooner nearby. The following day I went to this meeting, and this time I spoke. I talked about feeling completely broken, about the sense of moral rectitude I felt when my ex-husband had an affair with my friend, how right I was and wrong he was even as the pain of our break-up led me to self-obliteration. I said that I was forty-one and that I had no idea who I was. The man who spoke after me said not to worry, he was sixty-one and had no idea who he was, either.
After the meeting many people surrounded me. Keep coming, they all said, and gave me their numbers.
So I did. I kept going. I met many women who were just like me: women who were divorced with kids, women going through divorce with kids. Women whose addiction to alcohol had been supplemented with men, who had tried to fill a chasm of loneliness with drugs and love. A mother of my daughter’s friend with fifteen years of sobriety. We exchanged numbers, went for walks. Soon more of my text exchanges were with AAers than “normies.” Gradually the rituals of the meetings which had irked me at the start became guideposts in a new sea of normalcy. I liked hearing the promises, liked holding hands and saying the Serenity Prayer at the end. Even the Lord’s Prayer, which I’d muttered confusedly as a little girl at mass before dropping out after my first communion. Deliver us from evil? What evil, I had wondered? When I got my one-month chip the woman handing them out insisted on hugging me even though by that point the looming coronavirus had wrought changes in some of our rituals. We no longer held hands for the Serenity Prayer. Our circle of chairs had inched apart. The chips and the collection basket now sat in the middle of the floor along with a bottle of Purell.
We are still meeting in person. The bulk of us have gone on-line and participate in a Zoom meeting while a few die-hards continue to show up in the church basement. I count every day, we are never more than ten. We sit very far apart, chips are self-service. I don’t care if people look down on me for continuing to go. If liquor stores are an essential service, so too is AA. Our meetings are a little less formal, but we still follow the rituals. This core group has become a bit of a group within the group, we are getting to know each other very well. It occurs to me that I love these people, not just for helping me stay sober but because they are honest, introspective, struggling, funny. And because I too am helping them stay sober. I am doing something helpful in the midst of so much despair and worldly chaos.
Last week I shared that my heart hurt for the people out there who are just like I was a very short time ago for whom taking that essential step toward helping themselves by showing up at a meeting is not so simple. People who cannot save themselves by crossing the threshold, by giving up and letting live. While live meetings are still happening, in many ways they have gone underground. It would take some serious investigation to find one, requiring the kind of self-agency that a desperate alcoholic inherently lacks. I know their isolation and loneliness with an intimacy that pains me. I imagine a parallel me during the coronavirus without even the prospect of attending AA and that is a very dark and easily conjured devastated soul, a person I missed being only, perhaps, by divine intervention? “Your higher power was working hard for you,” my friend suggested on a walk the other day. The atheist in me could not disagree.
So here I am, truly and utterly single for the first time in my whole adult life in the midst of a global pandemic and I am not lonely. In fact, I am grateful that I don’t have to navigate this crisis as part of a couple, for whom the stresses of forced intimacy are wreaking their havoc. In Wuhan the divorce rate spiked after the quarantine was lifted; Reddit is exploding with relationship advice questions. In the vast space that has opened as a result of both sobriety and social distancing, in the new quiet that has enveloped my world and yours I am facing myself, saying hello. Parts of me drive me crazy; the nights are hard. Every day I take a long walk in the woods and every day I intentionally get a little lost, try a new path that I haven’t ventured down before. I look for clues as to where I am in the texture of the forest. Last week I found myself at Henry David Thoreau’s cabin site at Walden Pond, and later at a meeting a friend shared this quote: “Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.” I am beginning to understand that these kinds of coincidences mean something, and that maybe the world loves me after all.
I’ve been watching the excellent Brockmire on Hulu, which stars Hank Azaria as a tragic baseball announcer with a rampant drinking problem. I admit that watching him drink sometimes literally makes me salivate. I know, though, that he is sober in real life, and that the liquid he consumes on set is only colored water. I also salivated the first time he kissed the love interest. And I smiled to realize that while drinking is not in my future, kissing most certainly is.
Lindsay Hosmer is a mom, a gymnastics coach, and a writer. She has a M.F.A. in nonfiction creative writing from Emerson College.