Heather B. Armstrong

“Hi, I am the one that needs you.”

ASK A QUESTION


I want what you have or at least what you said you had as of May 21, 2021. 43 days of sobriety. I want to know how to do that. Cold turkey? Meetings? Therapist? I just need the timeline. What made you decide? And how many days til I start feeling like I can handle it? How many white-knuckle days til it gets easier? I want to be done with all of it, but I’m sure there’s a tough process to get through.

Thanks in advance.


Dear You Who Needs Me,1

I just got off the phone with my mother because I needed to tell her what you, a stranger, had done for me.

My mother, The Enabler.2

If you are familiar with the story of the mythical hobbit3 who writes this website, you likely saw the reference to my mother and expected the words here to refer to her as The Avon World Sales Leader. You are welcome to refer to her this way for time and all eternity because no one ever did and no one ever will sell Avon like my mother sold Avon. Move over, bacon.

But I didn’t ever tell you why I gave her that nickname. It was never about the quantity of product she inspired her managers to move or the records she set over and over and over again. It was about the lives she changed, the women who learned how to care about themselves because my mother cared about them, the women who finally understood their power because my mother spoke about their power out loud to them and told them that their power had changed her. And never once was she making it up.

I tell you this because the way she treated the women who worked for her is important. She treats me, The Addict, with the same humanity. And not because I earned that humanity. You and I, we are born with the right to that humanity and we do not lose that right because we are alcoholics.

You Who Needs Me, I promise this has everything to do with the timeline. I am not high.4a

What you are about to witness is a pineapple-shaped fountain of word vomit that every person in your life needs to hear, even the ones who have had experience with an alcoholic. Especially them. They all need to feel the foamy splashes of the puke I am about to spew if you want any of them to help you in the “handling of it.” Tell them all to find a bib rill quick. I just had some peach cobbler. It’s gonna get sticky.

My mother knew everything about my drinking. She could draw you an architectural sketch of when it started, of how and why I started hiding it and the way it made me feel simultaneously invincible and worthless. And it would be more detailed than the blueprint for a nuclear reactor on Mars. If your dad used to map out the trajectory of shuttle boosters for NASA, my mother would smile politely, congratulate him on his good work, and then ask him to hold her beer. 5

She and I both knew it was killing me. I could feel my body shutting down, and she was watching it happen. And I didn’t care. When I died, I thought, I wouldn’t have much to say for myself. But at least I would still have my alcohol. I would die in a window-less basement, chained to a steel pipe near the floor. Alone. I’d been there for 22 years and not once had I ever screamed out for help. I didn’t want help. I didn’t want to live life without alcohol.6

I never told my mother about this scenario, but she knew every detail. It’s in the architectural sketch. She could see the curve of the pipe and the rust from the chain that had seeped into half of my body and was poisoning most of my organs. She knew the walls were the kind of green you only see 30,000 feet below the surface of the ocean. And never did she beg me to get help. Never did she demand that I stop drinking. Never did she plead.

How could a mother stand by and let this happen?7

How? Why?

You Who Needs Me, this is where my timeline begins.

My mother knew that if she asked me to stop drinking she’d been sealing off that room and cutting off my oxygen. That request would have been my death knell. She was the only person in my life I would talk to about my drinking because she never judged me or prodded me or tried to shame me.

She never reduced my existence to Person Choosing Alcohol. She listened to me and supported me as a Person Who Is Struggling.

In early 2019 when she refused to participate in an intervention8 staged by four people in my life, they reduced her. She became The Enabler. In fact, they screamed those words at me during that intervention when I was frantic to call her. They called my mother The Enabler. Of course I would want to call The Enabler. My mother wasn’t ever going to demand that I stop choosing alcohol over my kids, they screamed. My mother wasn’t ever going to demand that I stop choosing alcohol over everything important and good and amazing about my life, they screamed. My mother wasn’t ever going to wake up and force me to stop doing this to myself and to everyone else in my life, they screamed.9

Had they not given me my phone after screaming all of that and so much more, I would have opened the window and jumped to my death. Of this I am certain and the memory of how desperate I was to escape that room is something you do not want to give to someone who is struggling with substance abuse.

I would never be taken alive to a rehab center.10 My mother knew this.

Today I am 14011 days sober. And I did not get here because of an intervention. I got here because of The Enabler.

In the jargon that has been haphazardly shoved into the “journey” of “recovery” from alcohol or any other substance you will find words like “journey” and “recovery” that make you wish you could breathe dragon fire full of moldy hairballs at people who do not understand why you would choose alcohol or any other substance over everything important and good and amazing about your life. Somebody—and it could have been a sober person!—assigned some really dumb words to make sense of our idiocy.

What decent person chooses a substance over their family? I’ll tell you who! Someone suffering from one of the most vile and subversive diseases that exists on earth. And guess what? That someone gets no sympathy because they are the lowest of the low. They are trash. They are drunks. Because they chose it.

Those words work for a lot of us, and I am not looking down at anyone who finds guidance in them. I just hate the fact that most people who don’t suffer from addiction regard this formula as if it were the mathematical equation for sobriety.

For me, this formula was written by a constipated guru who packed nothing but four industrial enema kits for a weeklong, self-imposed fast in the desert4b. After one enema he finally shit his brains out behind a banana yucca plant next to I-580 in Nevada and while doing so he saw a bright light and some super dumb words. The handbook for sobriety is scrawled in that poop on the side of a Sinclair gas station in Carson City.4c

Included in that jargon is “rock bottom”. I loathe this phrase more than any other because it is the most inaccurate and misleading characterizations in the tomes of words that have been rammed into this thorny cocoon of sobriety from which we all emerge like grapefruit-gummy butterflies farting glitter bubbles that spell out SURRENDER DOROTHY as we soar over mountains of problems and struggles we once avoided! Look at our wings sewn by Stanford-educated fairies who used microscopic layers of skin from the fins of dolphins to fashion an aerodynamic fabric! We smell like day-old sushi, but who cares! We are no longer causing every single problem in the lives of those around us! Who will they blame now!

I told you this was going to be pineapple-shaped.

Rock bottom implies that a bottom exists. You should rid yourself of this notion because it is harmful. It is deceiving in the most heinous possible way. You should also rid yourself of the idea that “hitting rock bottom” has to look like the back of a police car. I understand why some people wake up in jail and make the decision to stop abusing the substance that caused the arrest the night before. Some people get kicked out of the house or come very close to overdosing and consequently decide that they no longer want to live a life in which getting kicked out of the house or overdosing is a distinct possibility.

I mean, at some point we have to wake up and realize that our life is a toilet clogged with 60-year-old feces tangled in turkey giblets, right? Except, a lot of us wake up already believing that our life is a toilet clogged with 60-year-old feces tangled in turkey giblets, and we continue to drink. For years. For decades.

What if I told you that rock bottom is actually the pinnacle of hope? What if I told you that rock bottom is the brightest light you have ever witnessed in your life? Would you believe me? I wouldn’t have believed me. But that’s what it is.

I hit rock bottom. I know the day. I know the exact time because I was looking at the clock in my car where I had slept all night. That sounds a lot like jargon rock bottom, doesn’t it? But I had slept in my car many, many nights before in the year leading up to that morning. Why? Because we hurt the people in our lives when we abuse alcohol, we just do. And they are justifiably upset that we continue to hurt them. Often they lash out at us and want to hurt us in return because this is what humans do. They are as human as we are. See how pernicious this disease is? It infects the lives of those around the person whose body it has invaded and aims to kill.

What was it about that morning?

The Enabler burst through a wall in that ocean-green basement room like Frankie D’Koolaid and I saw a way out. I had not believed that there was a way out, so the only way I can explain this is to talk about it like I talk about music:

I was singing the low alto notes to a song I did not think my mother could hear. Suddenly, as she was saying goodbye to me on the phone she stopped herself and whispered the soprano notes to the chorus of that song. The harmony almost deafened me, and light filled me like liquid gold being poured into the cast of a mythical hobbit that would one day be perched atop a mythical hobbit church. It would face east because that is the direction from which the One Ring will fall out of the sky when it needs to cleanse the earth.

I think I got some mythologies confused. Whatever. Blah, blah, blah, bible, god, Allah, meditation, Brahman, guru poop. Whatever helps you triumph over alcohol is sacred. This is my religion.

That hope? That light? That moment? I realized it wasn’t about death anymore. It was no longer about being fine with the reality that alcohol would kill me. It was about living. I didn’t want to live like that anymore. I had not ever wanted to live without alcohol until I heard that harmony. I had not ever believed that life without alcohol would be a life worth living. That morning I not only believed, I could not wait for it.

Alcohol did not see my momma coming.

My timeline began with hope and continues with it. I saw a way out and ran. I Usain Bolted outta that place. I made the decision that I would not ever go back into that basement room. That decision is not an ordinary choice. It is not about choosing my kids or my partner or all the good things about my life over alcohol. That choice is waking up each morning and taking a pill for my deadly disease. That pill is called Not Drinking Alcohol Because It Wants To Kill Me.

The most important part about the timeline, though, is also the most critical thing the people in your life need to know:

When we are slaves to a substance we are not choosing that substance. In fact, that substance has robbed us of any belief that a choice exists. It has rewired our brains.

Let me say that again: Alcohol abuse rewires our brains.

Try and reduce us to a choice all you want, but no one will never come close to making us feel as low as we already feel. No one will ever be as good at shaming us as we are at feeling ashamed of ourselves. When someone shames us we aren’t going to feel very safe turning to that person for help should we ever Find Our Ready, and trust me. We need someone to turn to when we Find Our Ready. This is what I call it. It is not anyone else’s ready. It is not your family’s ready. It is not your friends’ ready. You have to find it and want it and hold in in your hands and press it to your chest because it is more valuable than the Ark of the Covenant. It is more valuable than a lock of Brad Pitt’s hair.

If we must use jargon in our journey through recovery, I propose that we trash the phrase Rock Bottom and replace it with Finding Your Ready. I know, it sounds exactly like Guru Poop. I don’t care because it’s far more accurate.

I understand, You Who Needs Me, that you may not have The Enabler in your life who can say the right thing or sing the right song or trip the wire that got tripped for me that morning, that moment in my car. I understand that a lot of us who make it out of that room often run back to it, and I understand why we do and why we would want to.

But I never will.

I am not someone else’s brother. I am not someone else’s ex-husband. I am not someone else’s sister-in-law. I am not the other shoe certain people are waiting to be dropped.

I do not fit into that mathematical formula.

I am Heather B. Armstrong. I am not better nor am I stronger than any of those people. I am my own person. My name is my name. My power is my power. And alcohol didn’t know what it had fucked with when it fucked with me. Never again will I allow it to say my name.

I didn’t experience any white knuckle days. I haven’t ever experienced a craving. I do not remember what it was like to want to drink. I do not remember what it was like to wake up and immediately reach for the bottle in my purse next to the bed. But this is not everyone’s equation. Someone else’s brother or someone else’s ex-husband or someone else’s sister-in-law may have had weeks of white knuckle days, but they also may be far easier to live with than someone like me. Maybe life with them now is effortless and peaceful.

Life with me is not that, but I would guess that if life with me were simple you wouldn’t be interested in my answer to your question.

I don’t yet understand how to process large quantities of input. All of my senses including my sense of space have been turned to 11. And I don’t have the ability to turn any of them down. Sometimes I experience joy so intense that it turns into pain because my physical body can’t handle the vibration. This isn’t a figurative way of talking about what happens. This is a literal description.

White knuckle days for me are echo chambers of existential reckoning. I don’t know yet how to forgive myself. I’m not going to qualify that or explain why. I’m just going to let it sit there as is and hope that one day I will learn how.

But the really good news is that life is brimming with joy. I believed that I would not be able to experience any pleasure in life without alcohol when the truth was that alcohol had wiped the true memory of pleasure from my brain. Understanding this lie and being able to examine this lie with a sober mind filled me with rage, with an anger so hot that it grew blue in color. I give credit to this fury for my resolve.12

The years of joy alcohol stole from me. The years of joy ahead of me without it.

I read your question and without hesitating I sat down to tell you about my experience. I sat down to tell you specifically that even though some unspeakable things happened this week I am still so happy that I am sober. Pain has not once in the last 140 days tempted me to turn to alcohol. And suddenly, I was writing. I was bleeding words. I couldn’t get the words out fast enough. And I wasn’t reaching for a glass. I wasn’t itching or fidgeting or getting up and walking around the room to try to calm down. I wasn’t thinking about drawers and closets and rooms that need to be organized. You have no idea how scared I was that would never again be able to sit still. I was terrified I would never be able to write again.

Alcohol was certain it would never let me get here in front of this keyboard. It did not want me to talk to you. It convinced me that the details of my alcoholism and my “recovery” would be far too shameful to publish and lay bare.

I told my mom that I wanted to thank you, a stranger, for tripping that wire for me. You have no idea the gift you have given me.13

Thank you, here and now.

 

.
1. I promised Tim McCall of Macon, Georgia, total anonymity, so I changed his name and we’re definitely not going to talk about his recent gall bladder surgery.

.
2. This is the first time I have written or typed out this nickname, and doing so shot my sober, frog leg brain straight back to 1984 where it wanted to dwell and suction cup itself onto every color and smell of the following memory:

I wasn’t allowed to see The Terminator because I was too young and it was too violent. However, my super conservative Mormon parents let me see Porky’s around the same time AND LOOK WHAT HAPPENED TO ME. Confusion causes alcoholism. You read it here first.

I didn’t know much if anything about The Terminator. Consequently, I was totally baffled by people’s reactions when I told them that my mother was Linda Hamilton. Sober Frog Leg Brain wants to imagine my mother telling people her name, watching them squint the tiniest bit, and then side-whispering behind her hand, “And yes, when I flex my triceps you can hear an entire generation of women scrambling to find HIIT workouts they can do in the laundry room while their baby naps in a basket on top of the dryer.”

And oh my god, because of my Sober Frog Leg Brain I just this second found the perfect name for what is going on in the contorted circuitry of your mind during the first four months of sobriety. You’re going to thank me for this, I promise.

.
3. Good times, that story. A brief, non-Sober Frog Leg Brain synopsis of this good times story:

A very public misunderstanding happened in downtown San Francisco on July 19, 2008. I turned 33 years old that day. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, all you need to know is that someone got a book deal and went on to write multiple bestsellers because of that misunderstanding. Someone else almost lost her life to her alcoholism.

.
4a. This isn’t going to turn into a tell-all blog post, but when is this website not a tell-all blog post. Period, no question mark. Sadly, this footnote is not about enemas or any aspect of proctology, but it’s only a matter of time.

Guess what! Turns out drugs are very different and surprisingly awesome when you are not participating in their realm while drunk. How do I know this? A friend told me!

Good thing that friend lives in a state where medicinal marijuana is legal because she can use it when she starts to experience a crippling panic attack. Moms on Facebook can look down their noses at her, but some of those moms on Facebook started drinking red wine at three o’clock in the afternoon knowing that all their kids would be home any minute and they dread that part of the day.

Ask me how I know.

.
4b. That time has arrived. I aim to please.

.
4c. My cousin once got so constipated that he passed out in the bathroom at work (remember this story? the This Is Too Big To Fit Out Your Butt story?) and when his head hit the tile floor beneath the toilet his glasses smashed into a hundred pieces and sliced open his forehead. But he wasn’t done yet. His head bounced and that caused his body to roll over. He woke up with his bare butt sticking out from underneath the stall. And he has no idea if anybody walked in while he was unconscious.

I’m sorry, but my cousin is far more qualified to write the mathematical equation for my sobriety.

.
5. My mother would never ask anyone to hold her beer (she prefers whiskey). I made this a footnote because I know she’s reading this and I wanted to scare her into thinking that this is where I tell everyone that she once tried alcohol. But I’m not going to do that in this footnote.

.
6. FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING. PLEASE DO NOT SCRATCH YOUR HEAD AND WONDER WHY I CHOSE TO LIVE IN A WINDOWLESS BASEMENT FOR 22 YEARS. I CANNOT BELIEVE I HAVE TO MAKE THIS A FOOTNOTE, BUT IN THREE… TWO… ONE…

YEP. I JUST GOT AN EMAIL ASKING, “BUT HOW DID YOU GET WIFI DOWN THERE?”

IT WAS SPOTTY, DON.

.
7. She was born and raised in Kentucky within spitting distance of the Bourbon Trail. And she takes fucking notes. Please do continue reading.

.
8. Since this is in a footnote let’s get right to it: DO NOT FUCKING STAGE A FUCKING INTERVENTION WITHOUT DOING ANY FUCKING RESEARCH.

Or, let’s put it this way:

ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND.

Please, if you are worried about someone close to you and feel that inserting yourself this way will help them, I beg you to hire a professional or a team of professionals. Please do not do it without a trained interventionist in the room with you. If you don’t want to go through that hassle, then DO NOT DO IT.

If an intervention helped you overcome your substance abuse, I am thrilled for you and would celebrate that with you. I am not here to take that away from you at all. I just want to dissuade any screamers out there from screaming objectively horrifying things at someone who is willing to jump out of a window to get away from all the screaming.

.
9. Please don’t treat us like this. We’re obviously in a lot of pain you don’t understand. If you wanted to understand you’d show up to our house and instead of screaming at us and demanding that we go to a rehab facility, you’d be carrying our favorite meal in a steaming 9×13-inch pan and would set it down briefly so that you could cup our face in your hands as you told us how much you love us. That’s it. That is all you’d do. Because the look in your eyes would tell us that you would love us no matter what we believe about ourselves. We need that from you.

.
10. My opinion about rehab facilities, a brief, non-Sober Frog Leg Brain synopsis:

Who better to prey upon than drug addicts? We are total shit and aren’t ever going to get better, so you may as well collect the insurance checks while throwing us all into group activities. No one cares that you’re exploiting us because we are scum. We chose a substance over the most important things in our lives. Please take our money. We love using crayons that resemble stubby Oscar Meyer Wiener fingers when sharing adult coloring books with strangers who have wiped their noses on every single zendoodle.

.
11. Actually, I wrote this on Friday and am publishing it three days later. This means I am 143 days sober.

I did not plan this at all.

Would you look at that. Tim, you are a magician.

.
12. I also give credit to the DNA I inherited as the granddaughter of Daisy Hamilton. She was the baddest ass motherfucker who ever lived. She is somewhere right now sitting in a lawn chair with a shotgun draped across her lap. And she is nodding at me silently. No one ever messed with Daisy. My grandfather tried, but she is the one who went to her grave with her dignity fully intact.

.
13. Let’s blow some shit up.