My relapse years

After months of trying to quit, I knew I'd be a drunk for life. Then I discovered how useful failing can be

Topics: Life stories, addiction, Alcoholism, Editor's Picks,

My relapse yearsA picture of the author as a drinker and a smoker and a New Yorker. She is none of those things now. (Credit: Tara Copp)

I can remember the day I knew I would never quit drinking. I was sitting in my closet, contemplating the bottle of Cabernet I had just picked up at the liquor store and realizing I was absolutely, positively going to open it.

I had been trying to quit for months at that point. No wait: I’d been trying to quit for years. I would wake up on a Sunday, all cringes and stabbing pain, and I’d swear off the stuff only to crawl back on my belly in three days, maybe four. This time I’d made a formal effort, though. I was Quitting. Done. Finito. At some point, you must accept that the universe has granted you enough epic nights and drunken ragers, and I drew the line at roughly five bazillion.

My mind and my heart were at odds on this issue, however. I knew I had to stop drinking – the evidence was unambiguous – but I would find myself on a date, nervous and fidgety, or I would find myself walking from the subway to the Brooklyn brownstone I shared at the time, pulled as if by centrifugal force into the liquor store with the bulletproof glass, where the clientele bought Malibu Rum and lottery tickets, and wondering: Well, what would happen if I picked up that bottle of Cabernet?

And I would walk home feeling the weight of that bottle in my hands, a grenade not yet launched, and I would wave to my nice roommate as I walked past her on the couch, curled under a blanket watching TV, and I would step into my bedroom at the top of the stairs, close the door behind me, and think: You don’t have to drink this. You could actually NOT drink this.

But then I would go into the closet, and sit there for a while, and pour the wine into a small juice glass I stored there for such occasions, enjoying the glug-glug of the liquid as it poured, enjoying the sharp fumes of the Cabernet — drinking it before I was even drinking it, feeling my body hum back to life.

Let’s agree that a closet is not the sexiest place to drink wine. It is not, for instance, Hemingway’s Paris. But the closet was huge by New York standards, and I had painted it an eccentric pink with gold-leaf trim, as though it had been designed by unicorns, or J-Lo. I loved that closet. You could charge rent for that place.

And the closet felt hidden, contained, a bit like the strong arms of a handsome man (which might suggest how long it had been since I’d felt the strong arms of a handsome man). For the past year, I had taken to hiding in closets whenever I had crises, which was a lot in those days. This was 2009, the deep end of the recession, when the line from Yeats’ poem, the line Joan Didion quotes at the opening of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” kept popping into my head: “The centre cannot hold.”

A friend of mine told me she was hiding in closets then, too – not worried about drinking but about her future, her family, how she was going to be a mother and a writer and a wife all at once. When she admitted this one night, I felt like leaping in her lap and throwing my arms around her neck: OMG, you too?! This is so exciting! Her therapist told her it was classic panic-attack behavior, a fight-or-flight instinct to hunker down in a place where no other animal can get you.

Anyway, I had spent about three months locked in this formal effort to stop drinking, but my success was middling at best. I would last two weeks, and slip. I’d scrawl an oath in blood, last another two weeks and then think, you know, it wouldn’t be that hard to get two weeks again. Why not drink? It got to where I was pretty much drinking every two weeks, which was its own management plan. Twice a month: That ain’t so bad.

Except it was, because the shame of saying one thing and doing another is a dark and bitter brew. I had lost faith in myself and any promises I made whatsoever. I would lay down rules at 7:30 a.m. and dismantle them by lunch. It was meaningless, play-pretend, like depositing an envelope of very generous checks into my account, each of them written on cocktail napkins.

“Every morning I tell myself I’m going to stop drinking,” I said to a woman on the phone one night, hating the sound of my own pathetic voice.

“But then 5 o’clock comes,” she said, completing my thought. “And the jungle drums start to pound.”

How I loved that phrase: And the jungle drums start to pound. Yes, that was it exactly. The woman was a successful writer, someone who had sobered up years ago, and in that weirdly generous way I did not remotely understand, she had agreed to talk to me on the phone one night about my inability to quit quitting. She was wise and compassionate and funny. I could not have asked for a more understanding ear.

But instead of feeling bolstered by this, I felt guilty. I had been given so much – a good family, a great job, amazing friends, the counsel of a wise and successful writer – and yet it could not save me. Nothing could. Because three days would pass, maybe four, and I’d be back in the J-Lo closet, sipping cut-rate Cabernet from the world’s saddest liquor store.

Novels and movies and personal essays like this one love the Epiphany, the moment when confusion and chaos part to make way for a truth so undeniable it arrives like a zap of lightning, close enough to rattle the teeth. So here was mine: I was never going to stop drinking. I was going to be a drunk for the rest of my life.

As far as epiphanies go, that one felt pretty good. I stopped sipping Cabernet next to my winter coats and returned to the corner bar. I stopped holding my breath as I passed the beer section of the bodega; I simply picked up two six-packs. If a colleague suggested we meet for a cocktail, I didn’t stutter and tug at the frayed sleeve of my hoodie, wondering how to gently suggest a non-drinking alternative (what were those, anyway?). I could respond with the enthusiasm I believed such an invitation deserved: Hell, yeah.

If there is a choice between changing and not changing, I can assure you the latter is the much easier road. How splendid it feels to revert to form. How cool and lovely and sweet. I believe that most of us, in our gut, know what we need to do in this life: We need to leave that job. We need to leave that relationship. We need to stop smoking, stop stuffing our face with peanut butter and fudge, stop hiding in that closet, whatever that closet happens to be for you. But change is hard, man. Ask Obama. Ask anyone who’s ever tried to change.

You know what’s easy? Epiphanies. I love epiphanies, and I have them as often as I can. I will be walking down the street and BANG – I totally get it now. I will be driving in the car and BOOM – I see it clearly for the first time. I have always been like this, determined to solve the world’s ills with my stubborn little mind. I was especially prolific when I was drinking, because the optimism of booze combined with the erosion of my own good judgment made everything – but especially me – seem totally and completely brilliant: You know what we need? Rocket ships. You know what we should do? Get naked. You know where we should go? Mexico. I was an Epiphany Factory. It was light bulb followed by endless light bulb. I convulsed with genius ideas. I lit up like Times Square.

But epiphanies are cheap. They mean nothing, not if you don’t do anything about them. On mornings when I was hung over, I had a lot of epiphanies, too: I can never drink bourbon. I can only drink after 5 p.m. I just need to do more yoga. And then, finally: Screw this, I’m a drunk. This is what I do.

I drank for another year after that. It was great, until it was not. One June morning, exactly two years ago, I woke up near dawn and understood that if I kept drinking, I would not get the things I wanted most. I knew that I could keep drinking for the rest of my life. And it’s not that I would die, exactly; it’s that I would die inside. This was also an epiphany. But it was an epiphany with legs.

That night, I talked to my mother about my drinking. Once you go public with your mom, there’s no walking it back, which is probably why I did it. I wanted to firebomb my escape routes and secret hideaways. I wanted to narrow my options down to one path — the path I knew in my gut was right — so that I could stop spinning off epiphanies and simply trudge that path each day, until days turned to months, and months turned to years and I could look behind me and see that, you know, I covered some good ground there. I don’t know why that time stuck, while all my other efforts didn’t. Sometimes you just have to fail 99 times to succeed once. You have to experience 99 false epiphanies to find the epiphany with legs.

I have been thinking about that closet recently. Friends talk to me about changes they are trying to make, and how they are slipping, and I watch them lash themselves for it. They say things like: I’m never going to change.

What I wish I had known when I was drinking in that ridiculous closet is that change requires failure. It requires screw-ups and a mouthful of grass and shins covered in bruises and I’m sorry, but I don’t know any other way around that. It also requires time and patience, two things I don’t particularly like, because I was raised in the school of  epiphany and instant gratification, which is why I loved alcohol, because it was fast, immediate, pummeling.

But change is not a bolt of lightning that arrives with a zap. It is a bridge built brick by brick, every day, with sweat and humility and slips. It is hard work, and slow work, but it can be thrilling to watch it take shape. I believed I could not quit drinking, that people would not like me sober, that life would be drained of its color — but every ounce of that was untrue. Which made me wonder what else I believed that was untrue. What other impossible feats were within my grasp.

Lately, I have been trying to do things I am bad at, simply to remind myself that it’s OK. Right now, I’m learning to play the guitar. I’m awkward, which is embarrassing, and the other night I was sitting on the floor of my bedroom in Dallas (which is painted with eccentric diagonal stripes, like it was designed by ’80s new wave robots, or Blondie), and I was cursing my inability to properly make a C chord. I thought to myself: I am never going to play this guitar. And I would be 100 percent right about that if I did what I felt like doing in that moment, which was to send that guitar hurtling across the room in frustration.

Instead, I took a deep breath, and continued to fail.

Sarah Hepola is an editor at Salon.

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