Tracy, my friend from early sobriety, had been a cocaine addict when she was only 12 years old. I don’t know where 12-year-olds find cocaine, but you can be sure that if they want to they will. Tracy had gotten sober for the first time shortly after she turned 14, and all of this happened before she had ever had even a sip of alcohol. Because she was active in the program, Tracy knew that real sobriety meant abstaining from all mind-altering substances. But, as is the case with many people, there was still a part of her that thought other drugs might be safe for her to try–a part that believed it was impossible for her to be an alcoholic without ever having been drunk.
And so at the age of 28, after a kind of poetic 14 years of sobriety, Tracy “went out” and started drinking for the first time in her life. Shortly thereafter, Tracy was a daily cocaine user again, and shortly after that, she was shacking up with her dealer. It was not long before Tracy was just a heartbeat away from cataclysmic physical, financial, and emotional ruin. Luckily for her, Tracy had picked up a few things by spending her formative years in the program, and was only “out” for about two years–but those two years were turbulent ones, and perhaps they were what convinced her, finally, that she couldn’t do any kind of substance without turning her life into chaos.
Initially, I referred to Tracy as “Crazy Tracy” as a means of differentiating her from the several other Tracys in the same community. At the time that she was Crazy Tracy, we were not yet friends, and even if I had less time than she did, she was, by her own admission, totally batshit crazy. She would sit in meetings and drone on and on about things like her mother’s speakerphone and the two lanes on the 405 that would always be backed up at the 101 North interchange (before they redid it). She would be dizzy with anger about this kind of stuff and though I, too, was angry about stupid stuff at the time–it was still something to see.
There is a school of thought that says you are crazy for at least the duration of your first year of sobriety–if not longer–just by virtue of the fact that you’re adjusting to a new way of living life, feeling feelings, and just generally taking responsibility for yourself and your own actions, often for the first time ever.
Eventually, Tracy stopped acting so crazy, and I mustered up the nerve to ask her how on earth she could have had fourteen years of sobriety under her belt and then convince herself that she could start drinking. What she said was that life got good, and you started thinking that you were different. And then you started making excuses, finding evidence that you were different. For Tracy, the fact that she had never drank alcohol made her different: though she was sure that she could not handle cocaine, she had been able to convince herself that–for her–alcohol was something different.
This was back in the days when I wanted to have a year of sobriety more than anything. And it wasn’t because I didn’t think I could make it a year. I always knew that I could. Because I knew I was different–the same but also defiantly different, saying that the rules DID apply to me but knowing, deep down, not all of them did. People would talk about how we were all the same, deep down, and to look for the similarities rather than the differences, but this was a much harder thing to do than it was to say. People would say some are sicker than others, and they would tell me, “Don’t you get the impression sometimes that you’re not as sick as the rest of us?”
And the answer for me was yes, had always been yes–but at the same time, I knew that I wasn’t like the rest of the world, either. I could not both control and enjoy my drinking at the same time. And that was all I needed to know I belonged. And if I needed to have a year it was not because I felt like after a year anything would change for me, but rather because I was sick of being new, sick of not having any credibility. It was a new feeling to me and I didn’t like it. I did not like former heroin addicts coming up to me and asking “how [I was] doing” meaningfully, people who had been off the syringe less than two years but because I was a newcomer, they felt they knew what it was like for me, with under a year of sobriety, they knew what I must be going through. It made me indignant and I was told that this indignant egotism was the kind of thing that might one day lead me to drink again. That would make me think that I was different.
When you share your story in a meeting, it is sometimes referred to as “qualifying”: e.g. you are instructed to “qualify” for a few minutes before opening the meeting up to general discussion. This always struck me as a strange expression–why would anyone ever need to qualify themselves as an alcoholic? Wasn’t showing up at a meeting enough, pretty much? Did anyone try to get in and just not quite meet the standards? I had spent my life over-qualifying for things and I felt the impulse during those moments to let that mode kick-in again: I would talk about the blood alcohol level I had when I got my DUI, because it was higher than anyone else’s, and most people would have been passed out with that percentage. It was not because I was proud of it–far from it–but because I always felt like people were looking at me and thinking I didn’t qualify, that I didn’t belong–no, not EVEN here, I wasn’t at home.
And then there were other times when I felt the need to qualify my qualification: when the circumstantial, educational and class-based knack I had to pass as a normal person served as a kind of crutch that I needed to make myself feel better. It was at those times that I would talk about how I had been a periodic alcoholic: I had never been a daily drinker, and I had never been physically dependent upon alcohol. I had never shown signs of liver disease, and my drinking career was short enough to save me from the lined, hard faces that prematurely aged so many women I saw in my regular meetings. I would tell them that I had quit drinking because I knew that something awful would happen to me if I hadn’t: I had cheated death twice already and wasn’t sure I would be so lucky again. But then I would go back to being me, in the corner, thinking of myself as the same and different, because I had never even tried heroin and didn’t even know what it was like to have a dealer of one’s own.
Last Wednesday was the eighth anniversary of the day I got sober, but I forgot. I took my last drink in the very early morning of June 2, 2001, just a few hours before I tried to kill myself. I failed at that. Now, it is gaining on a decade later, and I have a wonderful husband, a beautiful son, and for the first time ever, I feel like I belong somewhere. At 8 years of being substance-free, sometimes my world gets so full of beautiful things that I can forget who I am. I can start thinking that I am different. Last week I forgot my anniversary. And this post is to remind me that, howevermuch I might have changed, I will never be different.