Thursday, May 8, 2008

Outing Our Addictions

How do people get over their addictions?

That thought occured to me one morning, a few days before Christmas, as I sat with my friend at her first AA meeting.

It also occured to me a few weeks before that. It was conference day at my younger son's school. While David played in the mat room downstairs, his teachers raved about him and told me how much progress he had made since last year. I was thrilled with their rave, but also wondered what, exactly, they had really thought about him last year.

On our way home, we stopped at our local bakery. I ordered an avocado salad, David ate cream cheese on challah. After we were done, he spied brownies piled high in the case and asked for one. I knew if he ate the whole thing he would race through the afternoon on a sugar high, and then collapse in front of the TV at 4:00, a 63-pound pile of furious tears.

So I asked Marie, the lovely counter woman who has an enormous tatoo on the back of her neck and knows all my sugar addictions, if she could cut the brownie in half.
"I want to hide a half," I said.
She misunderstood me.
"You want to get high?" Marie asked.
I laughed. Did I?
Not really, but maybe.
I was never very good at getting high. I became paranoid, ate too many Doritos and fell asleep.
But I've certainly been good at getting low, and have, at times, been addicted to what is euphemistically called "sleep aids" and "sleep starters." I used to work as a reporter at a weekly business magazine. My deadline was Tuesdays, and more often than not, I was scrambling to finish a story Monday night, knowing I could finish at the very last minute Tuesday morning. But on Monday afternoons, I would pump my self up with so many lattes and devour so many Kit-Kats, that by the time I tumbled home to bed, I was so wired I couldn't sleep. Plus, I was worried that I wouldn't finish my story on time or had gotten some fact wrong. So I started taking Tylenol PM, little blue pills that put me right to sleep, or I downed a plastic cupful of of Nyquil. I woke up feeling as if I had snorted wet cotton all night long. I was bloated, thirsty and exhausted. Eventually, I stopped taking this stuff---but only because I had kids, stopped working and no longer had any writing deadlines to meet.

But would I have gotten over that teeny, tiny little addiction if I had not married and had kids?
I have no idea.

A week before Christmas, my good friend and I went for a walk in the woods near our houses. We took my dog and as we walked in the cold and chased Roxy under the bare trees, my friend said she thought she had a drinking problem. I had never seen my friend drunk, and could barely remember her drinking more than a glass of wine when we were out for dinner. But she said she was drinking at least one bottle of wine a night, and would plan her evenings around when and how she could drink. I suggested she go to AA. She said she'd go if I went with her.

I went home, googled AA and instantly found dozens of meetings in our area. I called my friend, and we made a date on a weekday morning so our kids would be at school.

That morning, we went to the first floor of a local church, and sat around a large conference table with a wide range of women. Most of them looked much worse than my friend. They were old and young. Most of them were thin. Some looked as if they had just woken up. All of them looked tired. We listened to them talk about drinking and driving, passing out in hotel rooms, sleeping with other people's husbands, losing jobs and driver's licenses, coping with husbands and fathers who were also alcoholics. The teenage girl sitting behind us was sober 30 days and had driven through mailboxes. The middle-aged woman across from us had been arrested for DWI the night before and was about to lose her job.

I thought about why I had never become an alcoholic. I couldn't come up with any reason except that it doesn't run in my family and after one glass of wine, I feel sleepy.

We listened to these women talk about how hard it is for them to face their families over the holidays without getting drunk first. My friend introduced herself as an alcoholic. I introduced myself as my friend's friend. I was out of my element, but only a little bit.

I thought about the fact that I used to be addicted to cigarettes. I started smoking at thirteen, my fourth summer at an artsy sleepaway camp for girls in the Berkshires. We would get up at 4:00 a.m. and smoke. It was always my idea. I continued to smoke into college, when I got up to smoking a pack a day of Marlboro Lights.

I finally stopped smoking at the end of my sophmore year of college, when I went on a three week trip to China with my grandmother. Grandma and I shared the same bedroom, and it was impossible to smoke with her around. Grandma--my lovely, resourceful, stone-cold sober grandmother, who had been a schoolteacher for forty years, recycled tinfoil, paid cash for everything, swam laps every morning at her local Y, and only occasionally drank White Russians at weddings---would have been shocked if I told her I smoked.

It was bad enough when she I told her I wasn't a virgin. She stopped speaking to me for three days. Finding out that I was a non-virgin who smoked probably would have killed her.

I gave up cigarettes in China, was cranky with my grandmother and gained ten pounds. I still crave cigarettes but I haven't smoked since that summer of 1984.

Twenty years later, my father started to die. By that point, I was married, had two children, owned a house, had earned a graduate degree. Out in the suburbs of New Jersey, I became addicted to Ambien and Nyquil all over again. My father, probably one of the crazier people in the Garden State, became sick with leukemia, which turned into lymphoma. During his last year, he went crazy. Not a little crazy, really crazy. He stood up while driving his convertible, shouted obsenities at women, let my much younger half sister (who didn't have a driver's license) drive my kids around. He bought a Mercedes convertible and an expensive watch, splurged at Zabar's, gave away too much money to charity. He died in debt. His oncologist called him the least compliant patient he had ever treated. I began taking Ambien and drinking Nyquil to help me get to sleep. I thought of them as sleep starters, not depressants or tranquilizers, even though I woke up in the morning feeling depressed and way too tranquil.

My short term memory started to go. My face looked bloated and wrinkled.
I was convinced my right kidney hurt. After three years of relying on these drugs to help me get to sleep, I stopped taking them.
I was worried about my memory.
I was worried about my looks.
I didn't want my kids to resent me the way I had started to resent my Dad.
I didn't want my husband to think he was married to a drug addict.
It was only that morning, when I took my friend to AA, that I admitted out loud that I had been addicted to "sleep starters."

After AA, my friend and I stopped at an women's clothing store near the church so I could buy a pair of shorts. My husband and I were taking the kids sailing over Christmas break and I had convinced myself I needed new shorts immediately. My friend is beautiful, intelligent, sensible. We gravitate towards the same books, the same movies, the same art. Our husbands are friends, our therapists are friends. We know each other's families. Both our mothers are chic and opinionated. My friend and I make many of the same choices. She drinks alone at night and I do not, but other than that, we are pretty much on the same page.

She parked across the street while I ran in to pick up the shorts. When I got back in the car, she asked me why I had bothered to go to such a fancy store for shorts, i.e. why hadn't I just gone to Old Navy? I admitted that one of my current addictions---besides running with my dog, checking my email too often, consuming large handfuls of jellybeans and carrots while I write---is buying overpriced, casual clothes. I told my friend that if she hadn't been waiting for me in the car, I probably would have bought a lot more than just shorts. We drove to her house, loaded up shopping bags with all the liquor in her house---Scotch, beer, cases of red wine---and put them the back of her car.

"I hate you," she said, as she walked into the garage.

I followed her outside. We drove to my house, and while my dog watched, unloaded her car and piled up the liquor under a desk in my garage.

My friend said she might start writing in her journal again. I suggested she write in her kitchen, where her liquor had been stored.

When we spoke that night, she said she had bought a journal at the mall.

Liquor doesn't tempt me. Other things have and do. We cope with our addictions by outing them. The women at AA found comfort in telling each other their stories. I get comfort in writing alone in the room above our garage, kissing my children, running in the cold, walking my dog in the woods, cooking dinner, and emailing my husband. I hope my friend gets comfort from reading this. And I hope that if her feelings overwhelm her, she chooses to talk and write her way through them rather than dousing them with wine.

Four month post-script: My friend is celebrating ninety days of sobriety tonight. She had one relapse since going to that first AA meeting---she drank a bottle of wine after a death in the family---and had to start counting her days again. She's been going to a lot of AA meetings and has made a tight group of friends there. Tonight a bunch of them are taking her out to a diner to celebrate her sobriety. Late this afternoon, after dropping David off at acting class, I stopped by my friend's house to lend her Anne LaMott's book Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith. LaMott is 20 years sober, and her book is about how she manages to stay sane and generally happy. I also brought my friend Clash's memoir---his book is memorable, funny and goes into great length about how he almost died from his various addictions . My friend gave me a copy of Anthony Kiedis's Scar Tissue and assured me that he too is now sober. My friend looked tired. She had just gotten off the phone with her AA sponsor. She said today had been hard. She had gone to an AA meeting but none of her new friends were there.
"I stood up and told everyone what day this was and they clapped and cheered, but they didn't make a big deal out of it," she said. "They didn't have balloons."
We couldn't figure out why no one had fussed more. Maybe her sobriety was still relatively new and the women at AA didn't want her to think the struggle was over. I was glad I had dropped by, and even gladder that her other friends would make a fuss over her later. They would trade stories, laugh, and not drink. As I drove away, I fleetingly, dangerously, stupidly, thought of going to buy myself some wine---we were out of white and I had some time to kill before I had to pick up David---but I decided that would send bad karma my friend's way. Instead I went home and started writing. Matt, my older son, wandered in to see what I was doing---he likes to know what I write about---and I quickly shut down this file. (Not that I don't want him to know about how people battle their demons. I just don't want him to know right now. He's almost 12 and last month, we caught him reading James Frey's memoir, A Million Little Pieces---a book my husband and I both loved, until we learned that most of it had been a lie, which made us feel stupid.)
Once Matt went back to doing his homework, I lifted my imaginary glass of real faith and true hope and said out loud to my friend, "Here's to you."

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