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Looking for the Third Door

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I am proud to say that I have spent a considerable amount of the last two years sober. I went full months (January, July and October of 2015 and January of 2016) without alcohol, and in June of 2016, I stopped drinking for what I thought would be “for good.” That lasted about three months, but by December I stopped again and this time sought support by going to a handful of AA meetings. I also read a lot of books and listened to a lot of podcasts about sobriety, which is why I recently went back and listened to Sarah Hepola, author of the drinking and sobriety memoir Blackout, interviewed on the Home podcast. The hosts, Laura McKowen and Holly Whitaker, asked Hepola about how she quit, and Hepola explained it was a process that took her about 10 years.

“I quit for a year and a half when I was 25,” she explained, then she went back to drinking. Later, she sought the help of an alcohol therapist rather than submit herself to an AA meeting. Finally, she bounced in and out of AA until making a final commitment to it and getting sober for good five years ago.

“I call that looking for the third door,” McKowen said. She explained: I don’t want to go through the door that is my drinking life right now, but I don’t want to go through the door of sobriety, either.

You’re trying to find that middle path.

I haven’t had a drink in 242 days. Granted, I have spent much of that time pregnant, but even though I’m pregnant — and definitely before I became pregnant — I’ve been doing what I would consider to be “the work of sobriety.” I didn’t drink during my previous pregnancy, but I did not examine my motivations for drinking at that time, either. In other words, I didn’t NOT DRINK when I was pregnant because I knew drinking had become a problem for me. I didn’t drink because I didn’t want to harm the fetus, or face judgement. This time it’s different. I’m not drinking, and I’m experiencing the transformation that comes with letting go of the crutch you’ve been using to eliminate all discomfort from the moment I first picked up a drink at age 16. Drinking has been there to alleviate loneliness, boredom, the discomfort of awkward social situations, heartache, the memory of past embarrassments — you name it. When it’s not there, I feel untethered, like I’m floating out in the middle of the ocean by myself trying to survive without a raft.

blacked out facebook

I no longer think this photo of me, or my comment, is very cool.

While doing this work it’s easy to say, “There is no third door.” You either quit drinking, or you don’t. You spend some time in church basements drinking coffee out of styrofoam cups and experiencing the immediate intimacy of listening to someone’s story of their own destruction — someone you otherwise might just be standing in line behind at the Home Depot — and you learn to nod your head in all the right parts: that’s right, you say. I can’t moderate my drinking, either.

drinking sadness

When I look at my eyes in this photo, I see the sadness.

But to tell you the truth I still question whether or not that’s possible for me. After an extended stint in sobriety (7 months, 4 weeks, 2 days, 4 hours and 21 minutes, according to the app that tracks these things on my phone), I feel like some part of the demon has been exorcised. Among the things I have realized while sober:

  • I don’t need to drink a glass of wine to have an intimate conversation with a friend
  • I actually don’t like going to crowded parties and making small talk, and because of that, I don’t have to force myself to go
  • The easiest way to deal with the issue of who is going to drive to the hotel from the wedding reception in the unfamiliar suburb is just to stay sober (and not drinking at a wedding isn’t the worst thing)
  • You don’t need to accept a beer at every social event where someone puts one in your hand, because once you start drinking at 2pm on a Sunday, it’s not a pleasant rest of the day for you
  • Alcohol doesn’t make you cool (seems simple, but it was hard to retrain the neural pathways around a narrative I’ve been telling myself — and that has been reinforced by society — since I was a teenager)
alcohol doesn't make you cool

Alcohol doesn’t make you cool.

The other thing extended sobriety has taught me: how to feel the feelings. It used to be that any strong feeling I had I numbed with alcohol. We do it culturally and consider it totally normal. Tough day at work? Drink. Networking event and the only person I know isn’t here yet? Drink. Feeling nostalgic about a past relationship? Drink. Nervous about this Southwest Airlines flight crashing during takeoff? Drink.

When you take away “drink,” you actually have to feel the what you feel in all those situations when you don’t use alcohol to numb yourself. In each individual case, it’s not that bad. Yes, I feel a bit awkward approaching a group of 6 people at a networking event and inserting myself into the conversation, but you know that? That feeling doesn’t kill you. Yes, it’s not easy to have dinner with a friend and have to have a difficult conversation about a falling out you’ve recently had over money, but doing it without alcohol means you have the benefit of knowing you didn’t say anything you wouldn’t have said otherwise.

ren stimpy raw nerve

The pulsating raw nerve from Ren and Stimpy. A visceral image, and how I felt in the first few months without alcohol.

Still, the cumulative effect of feeling all the feelings all the time can be overwhelming. And it can feel isolating when you’re the only one trying to do it without booze. For the first three months of sobriety I felt like a raw nerve — the littlest things could set me off because I had no other coping mechanisms. I had never developed them. I was denying myself the only thing that I’d ever relied on to take away the bad feelings and to immediately bathe myself in the glow of acceptance and camaraderie. Without it, who was I even?


Letting my freak flag fly in 1996, right before I started drinking.

They say that your emotional development is arrested at the age when you start using alcohol regularly to numb your feelings. Right before I started my current stint of extended sobriety, a funny thing started happening to me: I kept having visceral flashbacks to 11th grade. I’d be in that final resting pose in yoga, where usually I couldn’t focus on anything but what groceries I was supposed to get before heading home, and I’d be suddenly transported to my high school bedroom — green ivy wallpaper, the Trainspotting poster, the chili pepper Christmas lights wrapped around a wicker headboard — and I could just FEEL that girl sitting there. One time I even sat up with tears streaming down my face.

It’s hard to admit this because I’ve BURIED the part of myself that’s at all comfortable with getting “woo woo,” but I know exactly why that kept happening. Junior year was when I started hiding bottles of Seagram’s Extra Dry Gin in my closet and filling a 20 ounce bottle of Sprite halfway up with it pretty much every time I left the house to do something “fun.” Before that I had interests, hobbies, passions, drives, things that made me stand out and maybe even appear a little weird, but at 16 I sealed them up. I poured water over that part of my heart and stuck it in the freezer. Alcohol, I decided, was the path forward into adulthood.

Now alcohol wasn’t working for me, and that part of myself I had frozen was trying to escape, but couldn’t. I figured the only way to thaw her out was to stop drinking. For a while.

I also quit because I couldn’t seem to moderate sometimes. A glass of wine became the bottle, followed by a half a six pack and trying to convince my husband we needed to go to that karaoke bar on the way home from the Christmas party so I could do just ONE SONG. (We did, I did, it was terrible.) This wasn’t the person I wanted to be anymore.

outside sidekicks in chicago

He is saying, “Do we have to go in here?” The night before I quit drinking the last time.

Now, after almost 8 months of doing the work, of feeling the feelings, of experiencing intimacy without booze, of getting past the raw nerve feeling of being forever without my coping mechanism (and finding other ways to cope), and of reconnecting with some of the hobbies and feelings I had before I froze them out in favor of a life spent “acting cool” and “fitting in,” I wonder if I can’t return to a glass of wine in the evenings while chopping vegetables and listening to public radio.

My husband and I are planning on moving to the Pacific Northwest, where we want to buy a house with a big deck surrounded by pine trees, and I think: I could have a glass of wine on that deck while my kids play in the yard.

hiking beer bottle

My idea of a water bottle, in 2010 in the Pacific Northwest. I want to return a different person.

I also think I can balance being able to enjoy that glass of wine with abstaining in places where it doesn’t make sense to drink, like a play date. Like a networking event where I have a hard time limiting myself to 2 drinks even though I have to drive myself home. Can I do that this time, after having done the work of sobriety?

Or is drinking always a slippery slope?

I know there are thousands of people seeking the third door just like I am. Living life with a complicated relationship to alcohol means you’re always existing on a continuum. I heard people in AA meetings, after twenty years of their sobriety, use the same tentative language I was using in the first weeks of my sobriety — things like “one day at a time” and my favorite, “I’ll keep coming back” — and I understood that this work is a lifelong project.

I am proud of the weeks and months I have spent not drinking, and I won’t feel that they are erased if I decide, six months from now after my son is born and I no longer have to consider the needs of a growing fetus, to have a glass of wine some evening at a dinner out with my husband.

The culture of sobriety teaches you to erase your work and start over, and while in some way going back to drinking and then quitting again feels like I’ve thrown away those months because I can no longer “count” them, it also feels like I banked those hours, and the experience, as part of a lifelong attempt to understand my own complicated relationship to alcohol.

In other words, I think I’m still searching for that third door. Maybe it’s a naive and ultimately doomed quest, and maybe others who have unsuccessfully sought it will watch me sailing off from the shore and think, “You idiot.” But one thing I’ve learned in my months of sobriety is that I actually don’t mind what other people think of me (and in a real way, not just a “fuck all of you!” kind of way). So if I go “back out” as they say, it’ll be on my own terms. But I’ll still keep all the doors open.

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