Spring and early summer in New York City is one of my favorite times of the year. The sun is shining, it’s warm but not sweltering hot, you can just throw on flip flops and be on your way, and the streets are swarming with (mostly) happy, sunshine worshipers, walking their dogs, laying out in the park and filling outdoor cafes.
But this outdoor magic can quickly become a danger for a recovering alcoholic. The people sitting at outdoor cafes, enjoying cool glasses of white wine or early evening martinis — take on a romantic, almost otherworldly glow if I choose to lay my eyes on them for too long. Suddenly what I see is much more than what is really there. I see solace. I see a refuge where all my problems will disappear. I see a place that will be a steadfast and unquestioning companion.
Like that woman at that table with her Macbook and a beer. Surely I could do that? Work on my column (let’s pretend it’s not about alcoholism) and enjoy a cold one at the same time?
Or that lady sitting with her husband, enjoying brunch and a Bloody Mary — such a fabulous compliment to eggs benedict or an omelet. I’m sure I could sip just one of those salty, tomato-filled concoctions; it’s part of the meal, after all.
These are the things that my alcoholic mind will say to me if I spend too long lingering on the subject. The reality? Of course I could hit that café with my computer, order a glass of Pinot Grigio and work on my writing. That first sip might taste amazing, but quite soon the taste wouldn’t matter, one glass would turn into five, and while I might be able to bang out a few good paragraphs, I’d leave in a hazy state, dying to pass out. Which I would do, the moment I got home.
And when I woke up, I’d feel depressed and gut-wrenchingly lonely. And I’d want to do it all over again to make those feelings go away.
Summer is what I long for all year and yet, it can still be such a hard season to get through. You can literally smell the drinks as you walk down the streets in New York City, and those three-for-one chalk-written ads that sit outside almost every restaurant or bar seem to beg me to come on inside. Of course, there are no cute soda shops offering all-you-can-drink egg crèmes, or if there are, I don’t notice them.
I used to take longer routes home to avoid specific booze-filled blocks. But it made me angry: I was doing my part to stay out of bars, and yet here they were, creeping out from the inside, onto the city streets, showing themselves off wherever I went. I hated them all, as if they were people specifically fucking with me; enemies purposely poised on the sidewalk to set me up for a relapse.
The wonderful thing is that now, two-plus years into sobriety, I don’t feel this way (for today, at least). Those outdoor cafes don’t shine with the same dreamy light that they used to; they no longer pop out as serene sanctuaries. They just are. And if occasionally, that voice pipes in with the “you could have one…it’s such a nice day….,” I just say, “Bullshit,” and keep on walking. And never have I once regretted a walk-by.
And if I need to, I don’t picture the scene as it would start: Susan, the sophisticated woman writing and sipping wine. Rather, I imagine how it would end: At best, Susan, back home and passed out on her bed with a more or less empty (or nonsensical) word doc in a computer we hope she remembered to put in its case and bring home. At worst, a passed-out drunk in the park.
Which is what I was one gorgeous summer day in June 2011. Deadline-free, I headed to Brooklyn Bridge park with a blanket, some SPF, a book and a bottle (or two) of wine filled in thermoses. What a wonderful way to enjoy the outside, right? Not when you wake up five hours later, confused and unsure of where you are. It was almost dark, and I was not in the place where I originally sat down, but rather off in the corner under a mass of shady trees. Miraculously, nothing from my bag had been stolen, and mercifully, I hadn’t been kidnapped, raped or killed.
I wasn’t the free-as-a-bird, creative freelancer taking the afternoon to do some research outside. That was my costume. In reality I was lonely and filling up a restless, empty hole inside myself. Outside, it all seemed acceptable; the same wouldn’t be true if I were drinking two bottles of wine alone, inside my apartment. (Which I eventually ended up doing regularly anyway.)
Thankfully, that really dark period is behind me now, and I can only hope that I never make those seeped-in-disease decisions again.
And now I no longer dread the summer, even if it means being a little more prepared with my mantras in mind. Because there is so much more to the outside, things my alcoholism never allowed me to see. Hiking, walking, biking, sunbathing with a Diet Coke by my side (delicious!).
As my sober vision expands, so does my life, and as long as I’m willing to accept my limitations and do a little work, I’m able to see the unlimited amount of things I can enjoy outdoors. Things I was incapable of caring about before.
So bring on the sun. I’m ready for my third sober summer.