God bless the busted boat that brings us back.”
— Jason Isbell, “New South Wales”
Here’s what you should know about this do-over: Everything and nothing changed.
In my 30s, I had everything I ever thought I wanted. I was a travel editor, catching planes and writing stories about the next great city or restaurant or artisanal cocktail. I had this fancy job, which I’d worked my entire life for, and a family and a home.
But while I tweeted images of beach views and carefully plated food, I was also drinking a bottle or more of wine a night. Sometimes I passed out. Sometimes I couldn’t remember things, and I often had unexplainable bruises. By day, dressed in a pink shift dress and gold heels, I gave talks about nimble new media strategies. By night – it was another story.
I drank to deal with my anxiety. I drank to deal with my physical limitations. I drank to deal with never “being enough.” I drank to slow my brain when I was enough. I drank to cope with the tug of caregiving and the strain of constantly seeking validation. I drank to celebrate successes and numb failures. I drank because this culture says that’s what we do when we gather, celebrate, have a bad day, have a good day.
I drank over life, and nearly lost it all in the process.
In so many ways, my story is not unique. As a girl, I wanted to be nothing other than a writer. Standing in the printing press of my hometown paper, I dreamt of a day when I could be a reporter and tell real stories. As a young woman, that dream came true. As a newspaper reporter, I helped tell other people’s stories. Next, I worked at a non-profit, telling stories of people living with cancer. Doesn’t get more real than that.
But by the time I became a magazine editor, the media industry had been turned on its head. “More with less” was the mantra, not just where I worked but nearly everywhere. And I could do much more with less. To get there, however, I sacrificed myself – working long hours, stressing out about work when I was at home, ignoring the good things and fixating on the bad. My body fought back with a series of chronic, stress-related illnesses.
I thought the big do-over would come with a change of jobs, which I made. But this story isn’t about a job.We are everywhere. We are successful and shiny; we are broken up and busted. And we welcome new women seeking hope every day, saying, “You can do this” and then providing tangible ways to live without numbing.
The end came in an ugly way, as it generally does, and I, like many before me, found myself in a church hall. Shaking and filled with shame and fear, I spoke my truth aloud. These people said: “There is another way. You are not alone. This fight is going to be tough and raw, but we will wrap our arms around you and carry you when you can’t carry yourself. And then we’ll show you a better way to live. You’ll laugh again. Hell, start laughing now. We’ll show you how.”
The work began.
Admitting I have a problem with alcohol was really just the start of an entire life do-over. Alcohol numbed me, kept me in a cloud, insulated me from both the bad and the good. It kept me in a haze that felt like happiness at times but inevitably devolved into a hellish cycle of craving, use and regret. With it removed from my life, I can focus on the real work of my life: healing, becoming and returning to my purpose, which was clear to me from a young age.
Tell the truth. Tell other people’s truths, too.
The good news: I’m far from alone. More and more women are speaking out publicly about their do-overs post-booze. Women who have followed the lead of the late Caroline Knapp and Mary Karr, whose memoirs have helped a generation of women, myself included, understand that alcohol use and abuse affects women just like us. And there’s a new generation of women — people like Sarah Hepola, whose memoir Blackout helped me understand what I’d lived and showed me a path to real hope and change. Women like Laura McKowen and Holly Whitaker, who each write about their paths of recovery and the joy it brings, and have built a community via the Home podcast.
Recently, ABC anchor Elizabeth Vargas and professional soccer player Abby Wambach published their memoirs about recovery. We are everywhere. We are successful and shiny; we are broken up and busted. And we welcome new women seeking hope every day, saying, “You can do this” and then providing tangible ways to live without numbing.
Today, I’m connected with a community of badass women who don’t drink for a lot of reasons and love the freedom that comes with that. (Seriously, it’s pretty awesome.) You don’t need to have a dependence to choose this life, but if you think you might, honor and explore that.
We all fill ourselves with many things to turn away from reality — booze, food, work, social media — the list goes on and on. Some of us cross over into a problem; some of us don’t. It’s still early in my recovery — so early that some people will say I shouldn’t write this. But I have to write the truth. I’m freaking lucky that at 39, I got a chance for this do-over. Only by grace did I not die.
And I can still die from this yet.
But not today. Today, I don’t need to pick up a drink.
How do I gauge success today? It’s being present for my 10-year-old son, who wants to be — guess what! — a storyteller. Success is being honest when I have a migraine, not from anything I did, but because my body is healing from chronic illness and I need to lie down. Success comes in the constant stream of prayers saying, “Show me the next right thing. Lead me to the story. Help me tell the truth.”
Everything and nothing has changed.