Learning to exist sober in a drunken world

Chemical abuse is two things at once.

Seeing double? That’s normal.

Glamorized: Bragging about righteous hangovers–the kind where your head feels like it was on the receiving end of a Gallagher bit–is a rite of passage.

And stigmatized: Talking about a mutual friend’s tendency to go overboard with the bourbon is something you puff about concernedly over a few or five glasses of wine with friends.

There are two bars within a few blocks of my apartment.

I pass one of them on my way home from work. I don’t miss alcohol during the day, even when I pass by its open door at happy hour, bartender washing glasses, cutting limes, sacrificial spritzes of citrus shooting off like dust in the beam of the sunsetting sky saying goodbye through the window. Familiar sounds of The-Night’s-Just-Starting (Hello how are you?”s and back slaps and any song from Rumours) carry me home to different things.

Both of these bars have names that allude to the irony of drinking.

Independence Tap: Because drinking makes you feel free while you’re doing it and freedom is something worth celebrating and drinking is what you do when you celebrate. Free is the last thing you feel when you have no choice but to keep celebrating, even after the party’s over, everyone’s gone home, the bar’s locked and your world looks like peach fuzz feels.

The other one is called Paddy Mac’s: A bar name makes me think of the camaraderie, the closeness to fellow boozers that drinking affords you, even as it sucks you away from yourself.

I walked by both last night. The sky occasionally spit rain at me. Metallic and warm, like the kind of spit right before you vomit. For the first time in days, the wind’s taken a smoke break.

This night was what I used to call Power Hour.

I picked up the title playing pool with some drunk OSU bros I met at a bar a few years ago. “What’s a jock like you doing in a cool bar like this?” I mused, always trying to flirt with others first and turn the tables–or dance on them or flip them over, just give it a few hours.

Power Hour, I learned, is more than just a college drinking game. It’s the name for the extra hour of drinking you get during Daylight Savings Time.

Spring forward. Fall back. Drink until you fall over.

Spring forward this time. Four years of my life have passed. I’m married, sober, living in Chicago and peering into an Independence Tap that’s mostly empty. A few barstools filled. Ants on a log carrying them upstream to different things, into tomorrow, slowed down to enjoy the view.

A band played in the side room. I watched from the wet sidewalk, through the blinds decorated in a tasteful layer of dust, and considered the musicians on stage, a half-foot elevation from the crowd below sitting in metal chairs that creaked along song after song.

A crowd of one.

Two if you count me, watching from the window.

Why do we do such a thing? Continue to string together art, music, words, when no one else, really, is listening.

On nights like this I feel, acutely, the aloneness that sobriety has ushered into my life. Drinking used to be a power surge of aliveness, my days a graph chart of ups and downs, the highs a height I have yet to soar from again without alcohol. The lows too, which is ultimately why I keep at it. But it’s challenging to admit to myself the mourning I have to do for that old life.

How do you make sober friends? I wish there was a SoberMatch.com. Wanted: Former cool party girls and boys who have moved on to something rare and precious and new but still want that old connection to fun and people and life and curiosity.

How do you explore, how do you feel the break neck speed of being alive, without a crutch to hold you up like a magic carpet?

How do you offer to the saints a guttural unapologetic animalistic song of praise, thank the moon for its life giving light with a howl unearthed from somewhere deeper and more mysterious than the bottom of the ocean, wake the world in a screaming chest-thumping dance that stretches arms and legs and mind over mountains and through rainforests and across broken glass countries, all while remaining inside yourself?

I know other recovering alcoholics who have no problem hanging out at parties and bars and boozy brunches, teetotaling and enjoying the process of watching their friends get fucked up, while they sit in the back.

Not me. I hate doing that. It feels desperate. It’s boring. I don’t want to watch life. I want to be life.

How do you convince other people that not drinking is a kind of fun in and of itself, one that involves every part of oneself instead of only a few pieces that dial up and hang on for dear life? You don’t. You just wait for them to get sick of the seasickness induced by going up and down.

How do I express myself now, in this brave new world I’ve entered alone? I’ve survived and established recovery. I’m whole again, in a whole new way. Now I need to learn how to be this transformed self, exist in this transformed body/mind/soul, not just become it. I’ve accomplished the becoming.

I walk home.

That night I dream that I am riding an elevator as shaky as the Blue Line trains. I have no memory of getting in this elevator, but I’m going down, heading somewhere I don’t recognize. The car stops on a floor. I smile at the two young men and an older women waiting to climb aboard. I move to a back corner as they roll their travel bags click-click-click over the grate and step inside.

Doors close. Down we go. Metal box shaking.

Suddenly, the elevator car tips backward, unable to stand upright by the weight of the heavy baggage the new riders brought aboard.

There is no sound, only feeling. It’s like I’m drunk again, attuned to just one or two of my five senses. My stomach excitedly rolls as the car tips over, further further, until the four of us are falling out of the top to the deathly hardness of ground far below. I’m the last to fall out and miraculously grab the lip of the car’s open ceiling at the same time my fellow passengers grab the leg of the falling person above them.

Somehow, I have the strength to hold on to the tipped back elevator and pull them up to safety one by one. Each new person I help corrects the elevator back to standing upright, bit by bit. At last, they pull me aboard and our weight brings the car back into place. The bags have fallen into the black concrete sea below, but we are safe. Laughing. What a rush.

The elevator brings us safely to earth. Gravity locks us into place. We look at each other. We want to ride again, knowing we shouldn’t. We can’t. We’ll die next time.

I wake up.

Another day has begun. My head doesn’t hurt, thankfully, but my heart does. Just a little.

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