(Almost) Six Months

It took one entire day to devour Sarah Hepola's new book Blackout: Remembering The Things I Drank To Forget and what a punch-to-the-gut read it has been.  The recollection of her blackouts unleashed a flood of drinking memories for me.  I kept getting up and walking over to my computer to type in snippets of memories, enough to help me reconstruct the full story later on - if I wanted to.  More like a disjointed confession-style list that I could use when I wanted to host my very own pity party.  I also kind of felt like purging these recollections from my memory bank and hoped it would help exorcise them completely from my mind.  I know it really can't work like that, but the simple act of acknowledging my overindulgent ways over the past 25 years was cathartic, depressing and produced a lot of incongruous feelings about myself and my ways of coping with this life I'm living.

It’s weird how a woman frightened by her own blackouts becomes a woman who shrugs them off like an unpaid cable bill.
— Sarah Hepola

As I'm approaching my six month mark of abstaining from alcohol, reading this book made me think deeper and longer about all of the times I drank to excess and, ultimately, blackout.  I used to brag that I never got so drunk that I threw up and, well, that's not necessarily something to brag about, right?  Throwing up seems to be your body's way of telling you to stop drinking.  My body never conveyed this to me and I assumed I could keep on drinking because my internal alcohol governor never reached that point.  I blacked out a lot.  I've never admitted this, to myself or anyone else.

For many years, I was confounded by my blackouts, but the mechanics are quite simple. The blood reaches a certain alcohol saturation point and shuts down the hippocampus. Such a peculiar word, hippocampus, like a children’s book character. I imagine a beast with a twitching snout and big, flapping eyelashes. But it’s actually the part of your brain responsible for making long-term memories. You drink enough, and the beast stops twitching. Shutdown. No more memories.
— Sarah Hepola

Writing this feels like oversharing, but this book resonated with me and I can't quell the memory bank slideshow going on in my head.  Dozens and dozens of flashbacks of my irresponsible drinking days have come back to me like a series of photo slides being flashed up on a dark blank wall by a vintage Kodak Carousel Slide Projector.  For example, the summer after high school graduation when I drank an electric blue beverage out of a Red Solo cup at a weekend rental in Newport Beach and woke up in a spare bedroom, fully clothed and wrapped up in a blanket only to realize I'd lost five hours of the day.  Or the time I threw my best friend a baby shower and got so drunk that I couldn't fly home later that afternoon.  Or the time at my first bachelorette party when I drank so much jaggermeister that I posed for pictures while splayed out on the rough black asphalt of a hotel parking lot, only to be reminded of this horizontal event when the film was eventually developed.

I assigned a lot of these experiences to being young and stupid, but deep down I knew drinking this way, excessively, was not normal.  I never saw my parents drink while I was growing up.  Wine and beer never graced the refrigerator shelves in my childhood home.  I was the good girl all throughout my school career and feared doing anything illegal.  The irony in all of this is that in my thirties, I bought a wine bar and shortly thereafter was diagnosed with a histamine allergy deeming me allergic to wine.  Well, I wasn't about to let that stop me from drinking.  Oh, no.  I convinced myself that I had to drink for my job and that being a sophisticated wine drinker was different than dabbling occasionally in excessive binge drinking.

During the years we owned the wine bar, I developed my palette for tasting fortified and still wines.  Drinking was now a part of my job description and I took it seriously.  I enjoyed ice cold Champagne from France, as well as sparkling wines from California.  Big reds and nuanced whites were part of my new education in wine country and I reveled in this newfound knowledge.  Syrah was my favorite red varietal, as it was thick, viscous and, the ones I liked best, were high in alcohol.  Little did I know that owning this small business would become an occupational hazard of epic proportions for me.  The bar became my own little social mecca in our small town with a population of 950 and serving people became my superpower.  I delighted in sharing my small production winery finds and loved the happy buzz of sipping a glass of something (anything) while people enjoyed themselves on my deck overlooking the bay.

Until I didn't.

Overindulging caught up with me and was causing problems in so many aspects of my personal life.  Crippling anxiety and self-doubt plagued me morning, noon and night.  I eased those feelings by sipping a glass of sauvignon blanc with girlfriends or ending the day shaking myself a Manhattan (or two…or three) in the comfort of my home after putting my son to bed.  I would wake up every single morning feeling groggy and slow, two carefully chosen words I liked to use to dance around the adjective I should have been using - hungover.

Eventually, we sold the wine bar and I threw myself into motherhood, volunteering in my community and I started working a small part-time job to help give me structure to my now empty days.  Slowly, I sloughed off the old and tried hard to reinvent myself, even though I didn't consciously know that's what I was doing at the time.

I slipped up a lot during these reconstruction years and only recently felt the call to quit drinking for good.  I had tried bringing balance to my life in so many different ways, but I had never subtracted alcohol from my routine.  Something about this idea scared the shit out of me and at the same time really excited me.  Could I do it?  I didn't think so, but I wanted to try.  I wanted to prove to myself that I was bigger and stronger than that young girl who used to wake up with bruises all over her shins, rifling through her purse looking for clues as to what had transpired the night before.  I fucking hated that girl, so why was I letting her hang around for so long and pop into my life every so often?  She had to be given notice to get the fuck out and it felt urgent that she leave as soon as humanly possible.

…but the equation is simple. When I cut out alcohol, my life got better. When I cut out alcohol, my spirit came back. An evolved life requires balance. Sometimes you have to cut out one thing to find balance everywhere else.
— Sarah Hepola

February 3, 2015 was the day she was evicted and a new me moved into her old residence with quiet trepidation.  Examining my past, atoning for my behaviors and making better choices has propped me up as the woman I've always wanted to be.  It's almost laughable how easy and hard this has been, all at the same time.  Why did it take me so many years to get with the program?  I understand sometimes you need the journey, but really all it took was making a choice to stop drinking; stop thinking alcohol made me feel better, sound smarter or livelier at a party.  It didn't.  Period.  End of story.

I'm discovering that life is intoxicating all on its own and so much more beautiful when I'm fully present and not handicapped by the effects of alcohol.  Had anyone told me this is where I would be right now when it came to drinking, I would have called that person a liar.  I felt in control of my drinking, until I didn't.  It snuck up on me over the years and then snowballed when I really started paying attention to the side effects it was having on my life.

When I stopped drinking earlier this year, my internal dialogue was turned up about 47 notches.  I'm constantly in my head asking myself questions - How did I get here?  And, why did it take me so long to stop drinking?  What does it all mean?  Why can't I drink like everyone else?  Does this make me an alcoholic?  Do I have a bigger problem that needs addressing?  Why am I so anxious?  What are you really afraid of?  Why do you care what other people think?  Will I ever have fun again?

These questions are eventually put to rest by a little soul searching and then by reminding myself that I am human.  I am fallible and lovable in tandem.  Eventually, I end up turning my negative self-talk around and start dishing out the self-love by channeling my inner-Stuart Smalley:  You are so lucky to live this life, Tammi, so goddamned lucky.  You deserve everything you have worked for and you ARE enough.  Just get on with it already.  Trust yourself.  Walk the walk.  It's okay to let yourself shine.

So that's where I'm at with not drinking as I approach the six month mark.  I've figured out that I'm tired of hanging out in the safety net of my dimly lit world.  I'm sick of dwelling in darkness and shame.  Once I set free the secret of my drinking habits, I finally started to feel comfortable operating with the lights on in every aspect of my life.  

The byproduct of sober living has turned out to be this beautiful illumination of my life; my family; my true friendships; and my sense of self.  I still have tough days, but they are slowing becoming fewer and far between.  In the end, all I had to do was be brutally honest with myself and tell the unedited version of my story.  I needed to try a new way to live and, so far, it's working out.

I'm shining BRIGHT now and it feels fucking fantastic.