It Happened To Me: I Got Sober Before I Turned 21

I’m 20, sober, and often still confused about how to navigate in a world that is so very saturated with alcohol.

Oct 30, 2012 at 12:00pm | Leave a comment

If you can get sober in the Tenderloin, you can get sober anywhere. I swear to you: Take a deep breath on Leavenworth and O’Farrell, and you’ll inhale more crack than anything else. So that’s where I was, and that’s where the height of this story takes place.

I moved to San Francisco in April of 2011, having newly turned 19. The aftershocks of my trauma were still in full force. My alcohol and drug (ab)use flourished beautifully.

May brought the worst panic attack of my life. My facial muscles were convulsing; my arms and legs went entirely numb. I thought it was the end. Legitimately. I remember thinking about how my cat, Stella, was going to be an orphan. The only thing I knew how to do was drink, so drink I did. It helped for approximately half a second. 

This is where my addictive behavior took that abrupt turn from glamorized self-destruction to just plain ol’ disgusting. 

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Can we talk about my stringy bangs? Can we talk about how I’m drinking out of a purse while sitting in a diner? Yeah, I’m sure no one knew what was going on.

My drugs of choice were alcohol and benzos (an intensely dangerous combination, of which I was sadly aware). I now refer to my actions as a passive suicide. I lasted about 4 days into the new semester before I dropped all my classes and decided to devote my life to “partying.” And, by this point, partying just meant hysterically crying as I watched "Legally Blonde" on repeat with Stella.

I did eventually get sober with my accidental boyfriend of the time. There was no single moment of clarity, no profoundly inspirational light to put this under. It just happened. I had been painfully miserable for quite a while, and alcohol/drugs had been a problem since I was 15. Most of the time, I was very okay with the idea of death, and, as I said, was passively working toward it. 

The accidental boyfriend and I had discussed meetings before: We both had parents who had gotten clean through the program. I knew my options were to get sober or die. So, I made the choice. I’d heard that in distant lands, it was possible to be happy.

On that first sober morning, September 6th, 2011, I walked into the liquor store and bought three pounds of candy. Simon, the guy I’d grown to know at the counter, was confused.

“No drinks today?” 

Yes, I had been that girl who went in at 10 am to buy champagne and orange juice, the first of several expected visits. I think Simon had quickly caught on that I wasn’t actually hosting ladies’ brunches. I’m sure always going in wearing the same dress didn't help the illusion. The two bottles of champagne were just to stop the shaking; I had managed to become an image I thought only manifested itself in old men. 

“We’re trying this thing where we don’t drink anymore.”

He was probably worried about how he’d pay his rent. Anyway, I write this not to speak about my addiction while in the throes of it, but, more, to unpack what came with getting sober before having had a legal drink.

I began to go to meetings, as most sober addicts will. Meeting after meeting brought me to the conclusion that I hadn’t hit my bottom yet. My drugs of choice weren’t as cool as the IV cocaine users. I hadn’t been homeless yet, so I should probably aspire for that, and come back when I’d succeeded. I never got around to trying heroin; if I got sober now, I’d never be able to.

I kept going back despite the eye-rolly thoughts that intruded on my mind. After all, I did want to get better, and, supposedly, the fuckers in those rooms knew how. 

On my best days, I couldn’t envision my future without alcohol. I will reiterate that I was 19 -- if I kept up my health, I could easily have 60 or 70 years ahead of me. AA loves to tell you to take it one day at a time, and that’s solid advice for anyone, but still, I couldn’t get over the terrifying idea of living the rest of my life sober.

I was wildly concerned about what I’d do when I was in Tuscany with my future husband and couldn’t taste the wine. How would I go to brunch on a summery Sunday with my closest friends and not have a mimosa? In this fantasy, it was just a glass or two. In this fantasy, I also had friends who weren’t blackout drunks. I saw myself as something I never was nor could be. I saw myself as someone who could drink alcohol without it being a risk to their life.

As you can see, during all the time I spent lying in bed with greasy, matted hair, hugging a cheap bottle of vodka, my mind was elsewhere. My brain was convinced I was the troubled-but-stunningly-beautiful heroine in an Oscar-winning film. It took me longer than I’d like to admit to realize I was the only one who’d actually bought a ticket to see that movie.

Things got more complicated once I began to date and as I continue to do so.

“Wanna grab a drink?” forces my reply: “Well, I don’t drink alcohol, but I do love a good fountain Diet Coke.” And I always have to qualify the “I don’t drink” with “anymore.” God forbid they think I’m some weirdo and decide it’s their job to convince me to have my first cocktail. Sometimes the “anymore” triggers a realization in people whose sisters are in rehab or whose dads go to meetings.

“Ohhhhhh, like that.” Yeah, like that.

My 21st birthday is arriving soon enough. That should be interesting. This day has changed meaning a few times in my life: pre-sobriety, it was a shining beacon of hope where I didn’t have to worry about being arrested or embarrassingly kicked out of venues. Post-sobriety, it’s been a reminder of how young I am.

I’ve never been one for birthday parties, and without alcohol, 21 is pretty insignificant. I should probably make some grand gesture like purchasing a legal bottle of liquor and pouring it down a grate. (Wasting alcohol? Unheard of.) But all the crust punks on 2nd Ave would have a bone to pick with me after watching such an event. Let’s be real -- I’ll likely end up spending 21 watching "Legally Blonde" with the cats.

I don’t know. I’m 20, a year sober, and often still confused about how to navigate in a world that is so very saturated with alcohol. But when I start to doubt my commitment, I just need to take a good, hard look at who I was a year ago.

I wish I had a picture that could properly embody the mess I was a year ago; unfortunately, by that point, photo documentation had reached an all-time low.

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It’s actually lock-me-up levels of insane that I’m living in New York, at NYU, and have managed to morph into a human being who isn’t painfully embarrassing. The fact that I can say I like myself, and that my 10-year-old self would be proud of the shit I’m doing, is even crazier.

Today, I want to be alive. The fact that I can write that sentence is still hard to comprehend. Once in awhile, I wake up terrified by how much there is to lose now that my baseline isn’t death. But fearing how much positivity I have in my life is a price I’m willing to pay.

Friends ask, “Do you think you’ll ever drink again?” Well, let’s hope not. Because addiction is like Russian roulette: If you’re lucky, you make it out alive. But keep testing the trigger, and death is a guarantee.