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Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
I always thought rock bottom would look rockier. There was no vomiting, no missed work, no embarrassing stumbling in public places. I slept decently, and alone. I set my alarm each night, and I made it on time to my desk each morning. There were no signs at all, really, except the mostly empty bottle of vodka in the attic.
That was the problem, of course. There was nothing to stop me, no brakes. In the six years since I’d been capital-d Drinking, I hadn’t wrecked my life, my relationships or my health. (I’d consider that an act of God, if I were arrogant enough to believe he would protect me from asphyxiating on my own bad choices instead of, say, saving a toddler with leukemia.) But my guilt told me I was pressing my luck. If the drinking were only once in a while, it wouldn’t be a problem. An occasional glass of wine with friends? Fine. But using every happy hour as an excuse to get bombed, coming back home and drinking more? Not OK. Getting drunk Sunday afternoon because you don’t want to slog through the hours until bedtime? Not OK. I felt powerless over this, and I hated being powerless. Finally, two days ago, I admitted the truth to myself:
I am 24, and I am an alcoholic.
So what do you do? Believe me, I didn’t want to go to my first AA meeting. I dragged my heels. I hemmed and I hawed. I looked up the location for the meeting three times. But, eventually, I dug out my most professional pencil skirt from the bottom of my hamper (carefully scotch-taped it when I found a rip), put on mascara, and draped myself in amulets: my lone pair of nice earrings, my grandmother’s locket, my mom’s scarab ring. I wanted to look like I would be OK if they didn’t like me. I wanted to look like I was too pulled together to be falling apart.
At 5:31, I clocked out from work, narrowly escaping my boss, and headed to the meeting. My friends were either at Trivia Night at our favorite bar or in class, and no one was going to catch me. Still, walking to the apartment building I searched every face I saw and turned a few times nervously as if I were being trailed. I told myself it was never going to be easier than this: no boyfriend to confess to, no kids to be responsible for. I also told myself if I saw someone I knew, it was a good excuse to bail.
When I imagined what an AA meeting would look like, I saw a bunch of sad middle-aged men with paunches and short-sleeved dress shirts staring at their Styrofoam coffee cups in a glum circle. Under the blinking fluorescent lights, they’d stare up at me and wait for some sort of confession. But it wasn’t that, not at all. There were old mouldings, lots of light, a fireplace where a few hardy spider plants were doing their best on the mantel. It looked homey. It looked like a place where people would want to spend time. Thankfully, it was packed, too big for me to stand out. I came late on purpose, hoping to avoid anyone wanting to shake my hand or engage in small talk. With the only empty chairs in the front, I slunk into a nice quiet corner to disappear. Or so I thought.
A wiry woman with cropped hair caught my eye, motioned at her chair for me to join her up front. I never say yes to those things; I always insist I’m fine where I am. But it was so sudden, so convincing and so genuine that I gratefully took the seat. It was everything I needed to feel welcome, all in a split second. That woman helped me as much in 10 seconds as other people have in years.
The people weren’t what I expected, either: They looked normal, young, fresh-skinned. They were witty and well-dressed. There was a stunning redhead, maybe a year or two older than me, who sounded as though she could have been me — ruminating about the past, worrying about the future, talking to her shrink and feeling like it wasn’t going anywhere.
A guy in a soccer shirt looked like he should be at Trivia Night at the bar with my friends. “I knew people who’d used alcohol like me,” he said, “but I never knew anyone who used alcohol like me and quit.” He talked about how, when you’re young, you can usually find another person to point to — someone who’s more of a train wreck than you are.
Then it was time for us to introduce ourselves and say how long we’d been sober. I was doing everything in my power not to cry — a skill I’m only beginning to hone. I desperately wanted to pass. My voice shook when I said, “I’m still figuring things out.” But everyone clapped. And even though it was corny, I knew it wasn’t fake.
By the end of the meeting, my nails had made half moons in my palms. But I was proud of myself for keeping it together, for not just bursting into tears. The woman who’d given me her seat brushed my back as she ducked out early, a gesture of support. I whispered a thank you, and she said, “No, thank you.”
Afterward, people invited me to coffee, introduced themselves, gave me their cards. A handsome guy in an expensive tie told me, “There’s a meeting for people our age on Friday.” And I felt so hopeful that I went straight to the shop next door to buy myself an outfit for the meeting. At home, I re-dyed my hair, painted my toenails in anticipation of wearing gold sandals. I don’t groom this much for dates, but it felt good. I felt good.
The thrill is going to wear off, of course. I know that. That’s the way thrills work. I’m going to get sick of it, I’m going to resent the time I give up, I’m going to hate, hate, hate the moment I have to tell my friends and family. I cried a little, thinking about it. But I also felt — finally – like I wasn’t alone in this weird misery.
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)
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