It's a week or so late for me to celebrate on the blog but I am here now and I'm celebrating anyway! Today is day 376 of the third round of committed sober living for me, which means it's 10 days past my second time reaching a full year sober. Today I want to reflect on what's different this time, what's working for me, and what I'm learning now that I didn't know before.
First, some numbers: Because one thing I've learned is that cumulative sober time matters. Since July 2013, I've had three stretches of living sober. Over the past 3 years and 2 months, I've been sober for 2 years and 8 months. During that time, over two periods that totalled almost 6 months, I drank. For me, both times when I returned to drinking, stepping back into that world meant I quickly lost the day-to-day gains I had gleaned from being sober. The first time I came back to sober again around 2 months later. Last summer I drank -- lightly, then eventually at times heavily -- for just over 3 months before I decided that I genuinely enjoyed sober living more. Both times, drinking initially seemed to allow me to reconnect with the world I missed, the late night camaraderie and raucous humour of drinkers, the softer edged glow of wine filled evenings. Both times, it didn't work for long. Being sober worked its magic on me even when I tried to leave it behind. The longer I'd been sober, the more I felt drawn to the living with a clear mind and enjoying the quieter pleasures of sober living. After long stretches sober, late night boozy conversations (that no one could completely remember afterwards) and the warm glow of drinking with others seemed a poor substitute for the kind of real connection with others I longed for.
Getting sober again didn't entirely bring me that connection. I still only have tendrils that I am starting to see are growing into real connections. But I see that I do need to feel connection, I need to feel a sense of belonging to the world. And I see that alcohol gave me just an occasional, fleeting taste of that. Not one I could rely on. And eventually, not one that I could continue to substitute for the real thing.
This past weekend, I attended a conference, one I've attended now for three years. It's a very small group, about 16 people, and we spend three days living together, sharing meals and walks, listening to papers and discussing them. Three years ago, I was newly sober (3 months), and I was excited to spend days talking with people about ideas. Nights I sat up with the drinkers and sipped fizzy water, happy to be part of the group. It was all new and exciting, and I think that newness substituted some of the buzz that drinking used to bring. The second year, I led a discussion that went very well, and I felt like a contributing member of the group. I was newly sober, again, (one week!) and suffering a very bad flu, so at night I went to bed at nine and ignored the festive part of things. This year, I was, for the third time, sober at the conference. But this time I was solidly sober, and the newness of the event had worn off. And this time, I felt strongly the damage drinking does at these events, and how central it is to the social thing that's happening there as it's currently structured. People spend nights sitting up late drinking together, where they knit together a sense of belonging that's an important counterpoint to the solitude of of academic life. Evenings people knit themselves into the group via the social, and if during the day the conversation gets heated and even mean, the sense of belonging to the group helps heal the rifts. It's all ritual, and all the parts matter.
But it doesn't work. Some people don't sit up drinking. This year, I didn't. The first night, when I said goodnight early, one of the hard drinkers made a joke that all that San Pellegrino had done me in and I'd have been better off joining them in the wine so I could stay up. I said, "I'd rather go to sleep." And this was the tone of the evenings this year. The next night, I went to a yoga class after the days talks. I ate dinner with the group but by then many were already well into the drink, and as a group they were rude and boring. I noticed that only about a third of the group were hard drinkers. Among the others, some slipped in and out, seemingly enjoying the fun but not completely merging with the group. But that hard drinking group was a core of the event, so that belonging to it conferred a kind of glow that changed how what people said was taken up in conversation during the days, and there were many unexplained references like "as we were talking about last night" as though the whole group had been there, or at least anyone who mattered had been.
As you can tell from this description, I found the event quite alienating. At times, I didn't belong, nor did I want to belong to a group who would carry on in that manner. There's a lot to say about his that I'll skip here, because I really am talking about my changing relationship to alcohol, and my deepened awareness of the social role it plays. I see that alcohol is used to replace the hard work of finding ways to communicate with each other. Drinking was the route to instant membership in the group, and members were relieved from having to take responsibility for their statements. Rudeness and stupid comments were accepted from people because they were "good guys" and "you can't take him seriously." People who didn't join in during the evenings, (not just me) had to work harder to be heard during the day. So alcohol divided the group even as it knit a smaller one together.
It makes me feel sad to see that this kind of belonging is what used to feel meaningful to me. I'm happy to say that it's not what matters to me any more. After this full year sober, and three years of working on figuring out this drinking thing, I feel I see more clearly the great lie that alcohol offers. We all need to belong. But belonging means real sharing of yourself, making yourself vulnerable and being open to opposing perspectives and finding common sources of meaning through the real, hard work of communicating and authentic being with each other. That's what matters to me now. Ephemeral feelings of belonging that are built through conversations no one can remember and the camaraderie of shared hangovers is a sad substitute.
Of everything I've learned in my three years working on this, and especially over this past year living sober, that's been my most powerful lesson. These days, I don't have the kind of belonging that I know I want, and probably need. I am very happy with my husband, but in the wider world I'm still lonely, still on the outside a lot of the time. That may have been why this weekend was, for me, so very painful. But I do know that we all need to belong. And if alcohol offers a false way into that, in a world that doesn't offer much in the way of real belonging, I can see why it had such power over me for so long, and why it still has power over so many. I feel a deep compassion for the me of several years ago, and for anyone who needs alcohol for the glimmer of belonging it offers.
This time, at one full year sober, I feel like I am finding my way to bigger life changes. One is my shift away from the academic world, as I've found that it can't be the source of meaning and intellectual companionship I had hoped it to be. I have to look elsewhere for that, but I think I'm better equipped to find it now. Also, I am finally beginning to understand what people talk about when they talk about the wisdom of the body. I am loving this yoga thing I've started! (Imagine, me, loving yoga! It's like saying I finally realized turnips are delicious (still not likely) or that sleep is overrated (equally unlikely!)) And through it, I am starting to be able to know my own reactions. Yesterday, driving back to the airport after the final meeting of the conference, I realized I felt very sad, and that I wasn't quite breathing. I couldn't. I stopped at a little health food cafe to buy myself something to eat on the plane, but as I sat there, I realized what I really wanted was to sit in what felt like a healing space. Later, once my flight had landed back in Vancouver and I was walking home from the Skytrain, still not quite breathing, I noticed the red leaves still on the trees, and I felt lifted up by the beauty, surrounded by the flashes of that quick fall red and by the dark, constant green of the tall firs that line the road to my apartment. Walking along, I acknowledged to myself, "I really hated a lot of what went on this weekend," and with that I felt as though a metal band around my chest had fallen away and I took a deep, healing breath. (And that same deep, healing breath just breathed me again as I typed about it.) This is something that the yoga is bringing me, and it's what I have needed, though I wasn't open to it before now.
At this celebration of one year sober, I am confronting some big questions: Who am I? What makes me happy? What do I love? Where do I belong? I don't have answers. But I feel I'm on the road to some answers, and some joyful exploration of these meaningful questions. That's the next stage of sober living for me. And I feel blessed to be here.
Thanks as always, fellow travellers, for reading, for your fine company and your supportive comments. This sober blog space is one place of belonging for me. I hope it's one for you, too. Peace and joy to you.