What is true? What is beautiful?
Those are the questions I’m trying to answer right here, and in life.
Every word I’m about to type is going to be true. And because it is true, to me it is beautiful. To you it may not be. To you it may be ugly, you may misunderstand me, you may come to conclusions about me that are far from beautiful.
But do you want to know what is so liberating for me about that?
How you feel about all of this actually doesn’t change how I feel about it. If it makes you uncomfortable or makes you cringe that does not take away from my ability to own it. How freeing for both of us.
So feel whatever you wish to feel.
And I will do the same.
I have struggled with mental health, anxiety, and substance abuse off and on for as long as I can remember. Sometimes with all three, sometimes rotating between them all through different seasons of life. The best people I know are the ones who have given me permission to say that when my shame made it seem like those words could never possibly be spoken.
The struggle I have had from as early as I can remember is feeling. Feeling everything and really not liking it.
It turns out this is part of being human.
The feelings themselves didn’t cause the problems, my constant desire to escape them was the issue. Running and hiding in every way that I could. Numbing the feelings.
I learned from a young age how to make them go away. I had to make them leave because when I let them in they took my breath away. And without my breath I would die. The feelings were going to kill me.
Over the years, I discovered plenty of tools to help me come up for air. Ways to keep the feelings from suffocating me. One of them was drinking.
I think it’s important for me to say that this is my relationship with alcohol.
This is not about alcohol itself. This is not about your relationship with alcohol. Or maybe it is. That is for you to decide.
I had my first drink at age 14. The summer before my freshman year of high school. A more truthful way of saying that is my first drinks. Many of them. I had never consumed alcohol and then upon taking my first sip I drank until I blacked out.
The first drink made me not feel the feelings, which was good. So if some was good then more would surely be better.
I drank this way for the next 6 years, with a couple short periods of “taking it easy.”
In those 6 years, I made many horrible choices, was the victim of other people’s ugly decisions, had an unwanted pregnancy, ended that pregnancy, lied to people I loved, and hurt many.
The shame became unbearable.
So then I drank some more.
You know, so I could survive. So the feelings would go away. So I could breathe.
But then I grew up. I got pregnant again. I had that baby. I got married. I worked and mothered and wifed and cooked and smiled my best smile because my life was soooo great.
Except even though my life was all cleaned up and pretty now I still had the fucking feelings. About everything.
Fear for myself, for the world, for my baby, for my marriage. Fear about my relationships, about what people thought of me, about whether or not everyone was buying the performance I was putting on or if they knew I was just pretending. Fear that people could see this was just a costume I was wearing to appear to be a grown up. Fear that people didn’t like me. Fear that I said the wrong thing. Fear that God was mad at me.
And I was sad. I was disappointed that no matter how great I made my life look it didn’t feel great. I was sad because I was lonely. Loneliness is my most deadly feeling. It’s the one that wraps its hands around my throat and won’t let go. It’s the feeling that pushes my head further and further under water.
I was depressed, lonely and anxious. And I felt like I was going to die.
So I reached out to my friend who had so graciously helped me walk through tough times in the past. Good old booze.
Except I didn’t black out or binge anymore.
I’m a grown up for goodness sake.
This was obviously very different than my teenage drinking because now I had wine with dinner. This style of drinking was classy and grown up and was supposed to make my food taste better. And I really needed to make my food taste better because my cooking sucked.
It’s important that you know how different this was. This was social drinking. It helped me wind down after a long day with the baby.
I knew the drinking wasn’t an issue because one night I took a test online that told me that I wasn’t an alcoholic. My secret question was answered.
I closed my computer and opened a bottle of wine to celebrate.
I wasn’t doing horrible things, I wasn’t getting into ugly situations. I was a good mother, a good wife, a responsible adult.
Fast forward 5 years and two more babies later. Still drinking wine in the grown up way.
I even buy different kinds because I’m really interested in studying the different flavors and aromas. I convince myself that I am quite intrigued by the art of alcohol. In the different vineyards, in the craft of it all. This is not true. What I am interested in is the beer of beer. And the wine of wine. What I am interested in is the edge that I get to take off to keep me from drowning.
I am interested in alcohol’s ability to make the feelings loosen their grip juuuuust a little bit.
Because you see, I am still wearing my costume that shows everyone how great my life is. That is what they all see. So I can’t possibly start talking about all the feelings that are trying to kill me. I have to stay in character so I just smile and sip my wine. The show must go on.
Only now my costume started to feel like it was going to kill me too. It got tighter and tighter until I felt like it was busting at the seams. Every time I tried to put it on so that I could go out into the world and continue with my performance I would flash back to standing in the hospital bathroom after delivering my first baby. Desperately trying to squeeze my pre pregnancy jeans on and utterly confused why in the hell they they didn’t fit. It was all becoming too hard to pull off. The whole act was starting to exhaust me.
I wondered what would happen if I stopped running from the feelings.
I wondered what it would look like to just let them in. To feel them. If they actually could kill me, or if I would survive.
I wondered why my costume was getting harder and harder to stuff myself into.
I got curious.
The next week I started therapy. The thing about therapists is they are really good at calling your bullshit. They know when you’re pretending, they can see the costume.
When mine saw me trying to come into her office while carrying all my costumes and my bullshit, she told me to leave them at the fucking door. Except she used nicer words, as therapists tend to do.
As I started to learn what it would mean to embrace all these feelings that I had run from for 20 years, what it would mean to be present and to be vulnerable I was suddenly very scared.
I began to open the door to all the things I had kept locked out for my entire life. As terrified as I was, it seemed that each time I was willing to feel, to invite the emotions inside instead of run from them, I would become a little more free.
Only there was one problem, I couldn’t quite get that door all the way open. And for me, the thing blocking the way, the thing keeping me from my freedom was the same thing that I thought for so many years was the key to my survival. Alcohol.
It had transformed from a comfort and a life raft in the midst of my anxiety into a cage that was keeping a very important part of myself from being released.
And if I couldn’t free that part of myself then I couldn’t become whole.
I was searching for what was true and what was beautiful.
For me, drinking was holding those things hostage and refusing to let me see them. The day that became clear to me was the day I decided to stop drinking.
I told a couple close friends that I was “sober curious” as the kids are calling it these days. And to be fair I think that was truth. But I don’t think it was all of the truth.
I think the whole truth is I was scared to say that I had decided to quit drinking for good.
Most people assume it’s because I had a fear that I would be missing out, perceived as boring, lose a common interest in my social groups, etc. That wasn’t it at all. The reason I have been shy about my decision to quit drinking is because when I say it, people assume alcohol was a problem for me. The words addiction and recovery come to mind. I assumed people would slap the word “alcoholic” on my forehead and that I would walk around with that title forever.
If that word got assigned to me, that was what I feared would change my relationships.
Do people want their kids being watched by someone who they think had a drinking problem?
Will people question if they can trust me if they assume I have had some hidden addiction in the past?
Will they question my integrity?
And probably the most petrifying part of being really honest about all of this is that it would mean I would have to be committed to taking off my costume for good. And not just removing it, but lighting it on fire and watching it burn. It would mean no more hiding.
When I considered that a big part of me thought fuck no.
I need that costume for emergencies. I need to have the option to hide if it all gets to be too much. I need to know that when the real me is messy and ugly and human that I can cover up and play make believe.
But here’s the thing: the fear and the hiding and the pretending … that’s what made me need a drink in the first place.
The true and the beautiful things are what make alcohol revolting to me.
It’s essential to my existence that I stay in the truth. So I’m not going to hide my messy, ugly humanness anymore. I’m not going to zip up my costume and smile my best smile even when life feels hard and heavy and painful.
Now, I am inviting in all the feelings without any numbing, and they still take my breath away. But only for a moment… then it comes back. I keep breathing. I survive the feelings.
And I become a little more whole every time.
A little more free.
I gave up alcohol because I believe the best version of myself cannot possibly be accessed if I’m taking the edge off of my life. I think I am supposed to feel that edge in order to be fully human.
I want all the truth the beauty and creativity and love and joy and pain and grief and humor and I know that for me, alcohol holds the fullness of those things just out of my reach.
My integrity is important.
Telling the truth is important.
I want us to collectively and universally be able to stand in front of each other being real, authentic and naked and refuse to let shame tell us that we need to cover up.
So that’s what I’m doing.
Stripping down, getting naked, saying, “Here I am.”
And telling shame to fuck off.