For the past several months – almost six months, in fact – I’ve been working on my sobriety. By “working on,” I mean that I haven’t had a drop of alcoholic beverage or so much as a Vicodin to numb the hard pinch of reality. And to be honest, it’s been the best time of my life.
I’ve been reflecting lately on what I’ve accomplished with the money and time that I would have previously squandered on alcohol. I’ve returned to school; I took my lovely boyfriend on a lovely trip to Vegas for his birthday. Thanks to the lack of empty calories, I lost enough weight to need an entirely new wardrobe; and thanks to the newfound income stream, I was able to afford it.
Over the weekend, Eston and I were out of town for a bit of decompression. We went out to get lunch on a busy Saturday afternoon, stopping at three crowded establishments before happening on a quiet pub.
I’ve learned over the past few months about the importance of substitutes. Dealcoholized wine and nonalcoholic beer have been lifesavers; they allow me to hang out with my friends in a variety of environments without social discomfort, and they provide the psychological relaxation and meditative actions inherent in drinking, all without the inconvenience and unpredictability of an alcoholic buzz.
So going to bars is no challenge for me. On this particular occasion, I sat down at the pub’s bar and asked the bartender for a nonalcoholic beer. He recommended a wheat ale facsimile that was supposed to be a great interpretation of the original; some Belgian beer maker actually made both a traditional and an alcohol-free variety. I asked for a bottle of the nonalcoholic version in a glass with a lemon.
The bartender dug a bottle out of the bottom of a cooler, poured it, and tossed the bottle into a large trash can.
As I sipped the wheat ale, I was surprised at how remarkably like beer it tasted. It had the same creamy fullness of a Heffeweizen, and the lemon was wonderful.
For some reason, we began chatting about nonalcoholic beer varieties and brands. The bartender mentioned that his mother, a nondrinker, also enjoyed the taste of beer and drank quite a few nonalcoholic beverages as a result. I had recently discovered Bitburger Drive, a nonalcoholic German beer that was wonderfully hoppy. He mentioned that Guinness made a nonalcoholic beer, but that it wasn’t anything like their traditional stout. I joked that if Guinness made a nonalcoholic stout, I’d have quit drinking ages ago.
The wheat ale was amazing. I asked the bartender what the brand was again. I enthused aloud, “I can’t believe this isn’t really beer!”
A couple minutes later, about a third of the way through the glass, I noticed something barely perceptible but enormously uncomfortable. It was almost as though a thin, hazy, tingling veil was beginning to materialize a few inches from my nose. A feeling that, though I had not felt it for almost half a year, was as familiar to me as my own name.
I started to panic; I thought I was imagining this feeling. A placebo effect.
I handed my pint glass to Eston and asked him what it tasted like. I don’t remember what he said; all I knew was that I wanted to see that bottle. I needed to be sure. The nonalcoholic beer was starting to seem too good to be true, as far as its taste was concerned, and too bad to be true, considering what I thought I was beginning to feel.
Eston asked the bartender if he could see a bottle of the nonalcoholic beer. The bartender again went to the bottom of the cooler. He looked confused. He pulled another bottle from under the bar. They were identical.
“Oh my god,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”
My face immediately fell into my hands. I was crumpled in half and sobbing as Eston led me out of the bar. I sat with him on a stoop outside, cursing myself for my stupidity.
It tasted too real to not be beer; even though I hadn’t had beer in almost six months, I should have known. I should have asked for the bottle, not the beer itself in a glass. I should have been more careful.
And I felt so violated. My sobriety – the one thing that stood between me and certain personal, professional, and financial doom – had been taken away from me against my own choice. I wanted to sue that bar into a crater.
More than anything, I hated that feeling, that so-familiar veil that had begun to wave in front of my face. That feeling had been the precursor to the darkest times of my life, some of which I only know were as bad as they were because of their consequences, since I lost hours and whole days to physical activity accompanied by mental blackness.
As I began to come to grips with what had just happened, I mourned the loss of progress. Six months of work, gone. I told myself what I’d heard in every AA meeting I’d ever been to: that I now had to start over, that today was day zero of sobriety for me.
Humans are so enamored of metrics. We love to enumerate. We love birthdays and anniversaries. We love percentages, grades, pounds and ounces. Measurement is, in fact, our core method for evaluation. But numbers only represent a small part of the world around us; the most important values we have defy enumeration. We can’t come up with a metric for love, for example.
While I might have plummeted to “day zero” of my sobriety, I hadn’t willfully relapsed, as I had, in fact, done in the past. I hadn’t gone on a bender. I hadn’t lost sight of why I was sober. I hadn’t lost my desire to remain sober or my love for a sober lifestyle.
Day zero, yes. Rock bottom, absolutely not.
Although I lost something that was precious to me, it was just a number. The greatest treasure I’ve uncovered this year hasn’t been the painstaking accumulation of days without drink or drugs. It’s been slowly realizing that I don’t hate myself enough to destroy myself with booze. It’s been regaining the respect of my peers and family and the love of my partner. Most of all, it’s been learning how to confront my problems like an adult, and being able to take pride in that.
This incident also served to assuage a fear I had when this journey started. I had relapsed in the past; how could I be sure I wouldn’t relapse again? Having a taste of that alcoholic buzz, I very quickly realized how important my sobriety is to me and that on every level – emotionally, spiritually, logically, and fundamentally – I do not want to drink or use. And I will not willingly relapse.
In the end, I still do regret the loss of “my number,” but during a lifelong commitment to sobriety, six months won’t make much of a difference. And I’m grateful to have this confirmation of my commitment, that there’s something fundamental inside me that absolutely does not want to drink.
I’ve been counting the days of my sobriety in a journal I keep; it served to reassure me of my progress. What I understand now is that the number did not inherently hold the lesson; the number was never the point.