Last Friday morning I was sitting on a ferry as it headed south in San Francisco Bay. Marlo’s knobby knee was pinned to the blonde wood of the chair in front of both of us. They were resting their head on my right shoulder, and the frizz from one of their giant, naturally-occurring curls caught enough air to whip itself like a hook into both of my nostrils.
The fleshy grapefruit rind used to infuse hotel shampoo complemented the smell of rotting, murdered fish in an unexpected way, and I stopped to think, “When in wine country!”
We had just finished a tour of Alcatraz.
Three months ago I wouldn’t have noticed any of these details. For decades of my life I have overlooked the distinct alphabet in every shape of a garment. I’ve never stopped to study how the rhythm of a color changes the closer it gets to a different color. I have spent most of my life never hearing the way ordinary sounds echo against each other. If all of this seems like a whole bunch of word garbage, how about this:
If you pay enough attention, you can hear a flower in a fart.
Don’t worry. 365 days of sobriety did not take the Hamilton out of the Armstrong.
Leta had opted out of this activity in favor of sleeping in at the hotel in Japantown. She’d run herself ragged the previous two weeks by juggling exams and work and having to
beg ask her mother for gas money. She’d returned from a quick three-day trip to Zion National Park with her friends less than a day before we headed as a family to San Francisco for spring break.
I promised her that she’d enjoy browsing the vintage clothing shops in Haight-Ashbury far more than the morning she spent stroking the hair away from my eyes as both of our bodies swayed in the back of a 1973 Superior Motorhome making its way around winding canyon roads toward that same national park. Exactly a year ago, Leta cradled my head in her lap like she would hold a baby as she attempted to comfort me. It was the third day of spring break, and I was passing a kidney stone, the second kidney stone I had suffered in the span of four weeks.
This juxtaposition sits with weight right at the top of my chest and almost hangs on my back teeth. This weight used to crush me, but now I am comfortable with it lingering there. I don’t run from it anymore. I don’t squirm or dash around looking for something to relieve the pressure or its heaviness. I no longer try to busy my hands or distract myself with chores. I am so intimately familiar with the nature of shame and embarrassment now, with the ugliest and most detestable parts of myself, the parts of me I tried to drown with alcohol.
Marlo’s frizz conjured the beginning notes of a grapefruit sneeze, but I managed to bypass it by focusing on the sine curve of the tide in relation to our boat. The bay fanned out in a flawless pattern of lines that suddenly hiccuped on the silhouette of a giant dorsal fin.
It was there and then it was not.
A blip. A minor deviation in an otherwise perfect liquid fabric.
I had been still enough to catch it. Right there in that millisecond the world was winking at me.
For the last three months I have been trying to figure out how to explain to everyone in my life what the experience of sobriety has been like for me. Up until I saw that fin I still had not come up with an adequate way to paint that canvas. Ultimately it’s a giant love letter to the most unwanted parts of myself, to all of my grotesque imperfections. It’s about holding them in my arms like Leta held me, about seeing how I gave birth to them and how they gave birth to me.
But that’s just a whole bunch of word garbage when the basic facts of it look a lot more like being locked inside a brightly lit closet covered in floor-to-ceiling mirrors and suddenly contracting a horrifying case of Giardia.
You have missed me. Go ahead and admit it.
No one could help me make sense of what was happening to me, what continued to happen to me, again and again and again. I didn’t know if I was experiencing depression or sobriety or a lethal combination of both. I often thought I had permanently destroyed the circuitry in my brain. Sometimes I looked around at the broken pieces of my life and accepted that many of those pieces had gone missing.
But the world winked at me with that dorsal fin, and I was awake enough to notice it. I had not planned for such a ridiculously blatant metaphor to fall in my lap a week before I would celebrate the anniversary of my escape, but for someone who has bartered with the currency of language her entire career I had to raise my glass at the brilliance in the imagery all around me.
“Touché!” I thought as I inhaled the dazzling acidic kick of sea air and sunshine, and then I scanned the water beyond the Bay Bridge and exhaled all of my gratitude for the fact that I am an alcoholic.
Without alcohol I might be stuck in some other meandering addiction or behavior that isn’t nearly as good at its job as alcohol. You see, alcohol is the best of the best. No other drug lets you hide from all the parts of yourself that you don’t want to see, parts of yourself you’re probably not willing to acknowledge, while still permitting you to function in life with alarming accuracy. You can write legal briefs after having consumed a pint of vodka. You can give a lecture on post colonial literature in Africa to a room of 50 graduate students after finishing three six-packs of beer. You can help your 10-year-old with their math homework after four glasses of rosé. You might briefly think about how much you hate yourself, but only briefly.
Without alcohol I could not shield myself from the shiver of sharks prowling the bay between that island and the shore two miles to the south. And it was this, the sharks, that I had to make sense of. The sharks are the “what” that was happening to me. For nine months I flailed and thrashed and blindly stretched out my arms for something, anything that would pull me safely to shore. I wanted someone to fix this, please. Couldn’t someone just please make this stop.
But no one in my life could see those sharks. They were thrilled that I wasn’t swimming back to that island, but they had no idea what was in the water. And no matter how hard I hollered, no matter what I screamed, no boat was coming to save me.
Sobriety forced me into the most profound awakening of my life. It threw me against rock bottom only to remove that rock bottom from underneath me so that I would hit the next one a hundred miles below, and it did this over and over again. It pinned me against a wall and extinguished all hope. It obliterated the light from my life. It left me dangling there to whither away and die alone.
My addiction to alcohol annihilated me, and for this I am eternally grateful.
Without it I would never have experienced the transcendental shift in perspective that happened when my self-deception became exposed. Lesser forms of self-deception were so flimsy and brittle in comparison to alcohol that they crumbled the moment I tried to clutch them.
Everything changed. All of it. The transformation in my life cannot be overstated. It was as if I had been given the gift of sight after living my entire life in blindness.
When I opened my eyes I could clearly see that every problem I had encountered in life was rooted in my self-loathing. The common denominator in every conflict and stumbling block and misunderstanding of my life has been me. I finally understood how I had been responsible for all the pain and the suffering I was certain I had endured at the hands of other people. I had written libraries of stories about that suffering, and I was confident that every word of it was true.
Once I saw this I could not un-see it.
Again, the transformation in my life cannot be overstated. It completely reshaped the relationship I have with my kids and with my mother. The change in my behavior changed the behavior of my dog. I began seeing alphabets in shapes and hearing rhythm in the color of the sky. I stopped rushing. I stopped panicking. I stopped declaring that I was the president of the turning lane and punishing everyone who challenged me. I stopped screaming at dirty dishes. I stopped passive-aggressively slamming the jug of laundry detergent on top of the washing machine. I stopped resenting other people for not caring about how much I was worried about things for them on their behalf. I stopped scrolling through angry missives on twitter or hate-clicking images on instagram so that I could feel smug when I rolled my eyes. I walked away from my phone for days and weeks at a time.
In short, I grew the fuck up.
At the beginning of January I was so angry at the people in my life who were watching me drown in that water. I love the people in my life but I also hated them for the cruel and heartless way they would turn their back every time I screamed for help. I believed everyone would be glad to watch me sink to the floor of the sea.
Of all the stories I had written, this was the one I believed the most.
The paradox here is that without that anger, without that desperate surrender into hopelessness, I would have never been forced to find my way out. If they had made things easy for me in any way I would have never known that all of this, the beginning and the end of existence, the purpose of the millisecond we are privileged to spend on this planet is to learn how to accept and embrace and love the most appalling parts of ourselves so that we can do the same for others.
If I had not loved myself in the precise way that I learned to love myself, I wouldn’t have opened my eyes. And what a surprise when I did:
There in the sinking mud I stood unmovable. There in the rain and the fog and the burning midday sun I found myself again. There Heather B. Hamilton waited for me because she believed I was stronger than the current, because she wanted to read the book I would write on how to stay conscious when you drown.