After I was sexually assaulted by several guys over the course of an insane black-out that lasted nearly 24 hours, I woke up, three days later, and decided it was time to get sober.
Despite its nightmarish genesis, I imbued this narrative with a falsely cheery finality akin to a fairy tale, complete with my own magical metamorphosis: I was changed. I was ready.
Shortly thereafter I packed a few belongings and drove to a new state, confident a fundamental uprooting wouldn’t dent my shiny new sobriety. Truthfully, it didn’t; it remains the sanest decision I ever made. Instead, I was unraveled by the most cliché of addict clichés: a romantic entanglement with a fellow alcoholic.
R came into my life on St. Patrick’s Day, kindly delivering home the friend who was generously allowing me to crash in the corner of her apartment while I figured things out in a new city. Too drunk to talk, she staggered to my air mattress, collapsing on it so spectacularly that she deflated it. Just like that, she was out. I was alone with her mystery escort.
He stayed to talk with me, though I wasn’t interested. He mentioned—in the too-casual manner of one attempting to mitigate the gravity of a colossal fuck-up by sharing it openly with strangers—that he had relapsed a few days ago. I didn’t bring up my own struggle with alcoholism yet. I was too wary.
But a week later we were in love, in the inexplicable but utterly mundane way that these things happen—though thanks to the stacked effect of two addictive personalities coming together, greatly accelerated. I moved in with him. What can I say? With my air bed deflated, I needed somewhere new to sleep.
I watched him drink every day. I said nothing about it. I knew there was no use in trying to push him back to sobriety, and truthfully, I had no desire to. His drinking wasn’t hurting me. Being intimately acquainted with the fact that addiction takes place in the solipsistic prison of the mind, I knew it had nothing to do with me.
The inevitable happened quickly enough. I had a bad day, I felt the urge to give in to that classically alcoholic desire to avoid the slightest twinge of emotional discomfort, and with a boyfriend who was similarly alcohol-inclined, who was going to stop me?
Emboldened by the knowledge that he would be at his favorite haunt later in the evening, I went there alone, perching myself at the bar with the ease of a professional, and proceeded to pound gin and tonics while I waited for him.
“Welcome to my relapse!” I enthused to fellow barflies. I talked loudly; I got into a fight. It was simultaneously miserable and cozy, the way the familiar always is.
Drinking didn’t immediately regain its previous chokehold over my life, but my moderation was forced. I was conflicted and embarrassed. After all, I had so readily forfeited the one thing that, with no job prospects, no future plans, and no direction, gave my life a meaningful trajectory, a promise toward something. Without sobriety, I was once again a garden-variety loser.
Eventually I got a retail job that didn’t require me to work until the late afternoon. Daily drinking once again became a necessity. I became friendly enough with my fellow party-girl coworkers, though I blew off invitations to hang out with them. I didn’t want them to see how my drinking differed from theirs; I wasn’t inclined to attend dance nights at the local hipster haunt, taking expensive shots in the name of camaraderie. I drank the cheapest drinks in the sort of places where obliteration was the main goal, not the accidental byproduct of good times and shared experiences.
More to the point, I didn’t want to drink without R. Once my sacred, solitary pastime, drinking had become our pastime. If I wasn’t with him, I rarely had a desire to drink, and generally wouldn’t, even if the occasion called for it.
The reasoning behind my selective drinking crystallized for me on the one night I kowtowed to a co-worker’s friendliness, agreeing to be her wing-woman so she could make out with a hot musician. It was a duty that consisted of little more than sitting around the band’s hotel room until the early morning, waiting. I declined the laughably blunt propositions of his band-mates along with their frequent, aggressive offers of beer.
It occurred to me then why I had gotten sober—I never wanted to return to this nightmare realm of porous, malleable boundaries, where the nominally respected demarcation that separated me, the distinct human being, from me, someone’s means to easy sex, could disappear in a single calculated moment, a predatory assessment of my alcohol-induced amenability.
But in my alcoholic boyfriend, my addiction had found the perfect loophole. I could drink exactly the way I wanted to drink—ugly, messy, dangerous—so long as I drank with him, the partner-in-crime who deterred over men’s advances, who would never question my desire for self-obliteration because he was too busy pursuing it himself.
After previously being with a man who didn’t drink at all, who was so hurt and confused by my destructive drinking, it was exactly what I wanted, this shared vulnerability that required no real vulnerability at all, only each other’s complicity.
When R suddenly announced he wanted to return sobriety, I was deeply conflicted. I wasn’t really having fun anymore, but I didn’t want our easy camaraderie to end. Who knew what our relationship would look like without the critical element of our shared drinking?
Fortunately, it was a short-lived attempt, jettisoned on a sunny afternoon mere weeks later. He picked me up from work and drove with a palpable sense of purpose, leading us to the watering hole where we routinely left behind many such sunny afternoons to descend into the dark, smoky basement that felt like home.
I sat down at a table, feeling sick with anticipation as he went up to the bar. Relief tangibly blossomed within me when he returned with two gin and tonics. I said nothing; he said nothing. We just looked at each other over our drinks, smiling slyly. It was like looking into a mirror.
And we drank, surrounded, at this early hour, exclusively by people thirty, forty years our senior, people who already lived out a near-lifetime doing exactly what we were doing now, so many days like this having accumulated into so many years. Good, decent people, living the best way they knew how. They were our people. Instead of a cautionary tale, they were a reminder of just how young we were, how much longer we could get away doing this.
Sobriety meant a lifetime of swimming against the tide. Drinking, life was more like an eternal lazy river—aimless, dull, undemanding. We could drift down this familiar, circular path over and over again, carried forward by nothing more than our unresisting complacency.
But there was no denying what we were doing was not exactly a tenable life strategy. Both of us frequently forfeited eating so we could spend more money on drinking, which led to more black-outs, and increasingly bad decisions. At some point we stopped being a couple altogether and became co-conspirators, using each other to justify and enable our worst impulses, as isolated from each other as we were from the rest of the world.
And then a morning came where I asked him if he wanted to stop. It was an unremarkable morning following an equally unremarkable night, rather depressing in its nondescript similarity to so many others before it.
I hadn’t expected his response to be an affirmative, and my instinctive reaction was to take the suggestion back. We’d had a few drinks and passed out early. Was that really the sort of night that should cap off our impressive drinking careers?
But why was I waiting for some external circumstance to force my hand? We could continue to drink until something awful happened to one or both of us, or we could make the decision to commit to sobriety, right here in the morning glare that felt so much like a reprimand, reminding us we both knew better.
We both knew better. We went around the house and poured out everything we had left.
Now here we are, a year and some months from that day. We’re engaged. We have responsibilities and debts and a cat. The memory of our time drinking has taken on the strange, amorphous quality of an unpleasant dream.
We had to build our relationship from the ground up. We weren’t partners when we drank; our lives had simply overlapped for a time, forming a Venn diagram of self-destructive misery. We didn’t know real intimacy. We knew only the chemically manufactured variety, the kind that comes out of a bottle.
We are the couple that never should have gotten together, and yet, a genuine partnership, filled with communication and compromise, has been built on top of the burnt remains of our careless, reckless choices. We looked at each other through unclouded eyes, and we chose each other, anyway, even though we were strangers, even though we were scared.
We still choose each other each day. Love’s a lot like sobriety that way.