I never knew how much of American grown-up culture revolved around drinking until I got sober. The first year of sobriety is hard for many reasons, but the firsts are intensified when you realize how many of them go hand in hand with a drink. There were so many firsts that year, but a few of the hardest were my first sober birthday, the first wedding I attended in sobriety, the first Christmas and New Year’s Eve and the first sober vacation. The reasons for each difficult first was varied, but here are few insights:
I turned 32 twenty-four days after I got sober. I didn’t feel much like celebrating anything that day. Sure, I had lived another year, but my head and heart were anti-celebration. I was dreading any celebratory revelry. The only way I knew to celebrate anything in adulthood included a toast. Even if you are not a heavy drinker, a fluted glass of bubbly was not only acceptable, but encouraged. Even dinners out with friends began with the normal question of, “What can I get you to drink?” So for that evening, we went with a small group of our very best friends and Lucas hosted a dinner for me at a lovely restaurant. Let’s be honest, I was terrified, but everyone at that table knew the journey and the fear that was all-encompassing. With love and grace and honest conversation and lots of laughter, we ate a wonderful meal, drank tea and coke and celebrated. I was alive. Barely. But I was alive, and those that understood my fear of something as simple as a restaurant meal, gathered around me and showed me that we could have LOTS of fun without tequila.
Weddings are an alcoholic’s playground. There is nothing more boundary testing than an open bar. How much can I consume before anyone notices? How long can I go between drinks without causing anyone to think twice? I’m not drinking more than _____, so I must still be ok. If I really want to be a good dancer, 2 or 10 more drinks will make that happen for sure! I can honestly say that some of my most horrific stories of personal reckoning happened at the weddings of people so dear to me. Many times, others may have had no idea, but in other cases, they have been the location where those in my inner circle have seen the ugly and later confessed their concern. I feared receiving a wedding invitation in the summer of 2007. If you married that year and I did not come to your big day, please know that it probably broke my heart to say ‘no’, but there was no way I could walk into the fire of a reception without strong legs and I did not have them. The first wedding I attended in sobriety was so scary. I’m sure Lucas’s hands still bear the scars of my fingernails. But. I did it. And come to find out, other people don’t drink NEAR as much as I remembered. Perhaps that explains so much…
Holidays. Can you feel the heaviness of that word in my heart? 1,000 pounds of fear are tied to the firsts of holidays in a newly sober world. I love the turkey and the lights and the countdown. I love the sparkle and the gifts. I love it all. And with all the love that I have for parties and meals and food, they are all equally linked to my habit for, and love of a drink. At my core, I am an introvert. Sure, I love people. So much. But I also find my energy in quiet. Holidays in my realm of experience are filled with people and noise and people and some more people. Even when I was not drunk, a nice strong drink was my companion at holiday gatherings for the previous decade. What does it look like to do all the family and the friends that I have not seen all year without a little extra liquid courage? For the first year, it did not look like much. It looked like saying ‘no’ to traditions that I loved because I just could not muster the courage or strength to answer the questions. Innocent and loving inquires about the past few months of my life, felt like my heart was being held outside my body. I was not ready to be honest. And the standard, “fine” was the biggest lie. There was nothing fine about any part of the first holidays. Instead, we started some new traditions in our family of 4. You know, like Santa bringing a rat. Yeah, what in the hell was I thinking on that one?
Last but certainly not least was vacations. Vacations were fertile ground for planned escapes – both from my life and my self-imposed rules on drinking. When I left the area where kids in the youth group would run into me while drinking, that was permission to relax. I deserved it, right? I worked hard in ministry and vacations were for remembering the glorious care free days of heavy drinking. By the time that I stopped drinking, I had mastered the vacation binge. Go big before you go home. That was a well lived motto. It took a full year from my sobriety date for me to consider a vacation. Lucas encouraged me to plan a trip for the two of us. We love to cruise. On the cruise we took before I stopped drinking, my bar bill was significant, and the tip I left for my Russian bartender that I befriended was about as costly as our excursions. With some prodding, he suggested we go alone for a 6-day trip. Instead of bars, spend your money on spas and the bottomless Coke package. DEAL. He gets me. And he was right. It was a great trip. I went to meetings on the boat. We celebrated the 525,600 minutes of sobriety that WE had survived. It was a worthy celebration and a reminder that familiar events can be enjoyed, but they are going to look very different in the future.