Today marks the 1 year anniversary of when I returned from rehab. I’m supposed to be celebrating 396 days sober today.
However, I’m celebrating Day 47.
I returned home from rehab optimistic, calm, clean, and super tanned – a definite perk of choosing a recovery centre in the Dominican Republic, when you’re a helpless drunk white boy in snowy, cold Canada.
I cannot over emphasize how the sun, the sea and the sand can heal your soul.
I was 30 days sober for the first time in 20 years. I could hold a cup of coffee without my hands shaking violently, and I could hold a conversation without my mind wandering to when the other person would shut up so I could go find another drink.
It was, quite literally, a whole new world. I was flying through the air like Jasmine and Aladdin on a weak, freshly woven magic carpet made up of thin frayed threads and heading into a landscape of terrifying firsts.
The first time coming home from a photo shoot and not stopping at the liquor store.
The first time out for dinner without doubling my bill with booze.
The first time at a family function without the bloody hangover or pre-numbing with a drink or three.
All these firsts rose up on the horizon like terrifying towers armed with snipers wanting to take me out, and I had to learn to navigate my way through as if everything I needed to survive was just on the other side. I had to learn to walk again on my shaky new legs, so that I could someday learn to run.
It’s called recovery for a reason, as though I’d somehow survived a head-on collision that shattered me into a thousand pieces. I was both the car crash, and the tree it ran into. I was the train wreck, and the tracks it jumped.
The victim and the violence.
I had come home carrying a bag of truths I now needed to unpack and deal with for the first time. You know, all the ugly stuff: the monsters that used to chase me to the liquor store every day, nipping at my heels just to keep me running. So long as I kept feeding them, they would leave me alone. Now that I was sober, I had to find a new way of dealing with them.
It was like I was at a fancy dinner party and they were the loud mouthed friend that kept telling all my secrets, spilling my confessions into the gravy boat. Kicking at them under the table to make them shut up wouldn’t work anymore. Dinner was over and the table was gone, and there we were sitting together, totally exposed.
I was looking forward to facing all my demons eye to eye as much as I was going for a root canal without anaesthetic.
It was going to hurt like hell, but it had to be done.
While I was away at rehab, writing worked. It was my morning confessional and my evening prayer; I poured myself onto the page as a sort of bloodletting. Writing released the pressure.
I was far from home and anonymous, able to extract all my rotten parts without anyone really seeing the bloody mess. I was able to stare my demons in the eye and sort them out on the page. Now that I was home, I felt transplanted. It was going to take time for my roots to reach out into new soil.
My strategy was to carry on as though the only thing that had changed was my ability to finally walk a straight line on demand.
That was my first mistake.
I stopped writing. I closed up that chapter of rehab like an old textbook I didn’t need anymore, and stowed my pen away forgetting I hadn’t yet written the test. It’s no big surprise that I failed. Somehow, I had convinced myself that all I had to do was not drink. Looking back, I’m pretty sure that was just me being me and avoiding the uncomfortable parts.
I wanted dessert, but refused to eat my vegetables.
You know when you’re sick and start taking antibiotics, and they tell you to keep taking them even after you start to feel better? That’s what recovery is like. It’s an ongoing prescription you need to take daily, even when the symptoms have gone away. Just because you don’t feel sick anymore doesn’t mean it’s not still inside you waiting for just the right conditions to flare up and take you down.
Had I kept writing after I came home from rehab, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have had that fatal first drink just a couple months later.
I started to take my sobriety for granted.
By no longer writing every day, I in turn stopped taking my medicine. Writing was how I dealt with the ugly parts, the jumbled bits inside me that would somehow would fall out and arrange themselves into sensible sentences, revealing what I was feeling and couldn’t otherwise express. It didn’t matter how gross and distorted the feeling or how uncomfortable the confession: there were words for it.
Some people find their medicine at the gym or through exercise, others through yoga, some through cooking, or coffee dates with long
lost abandoned friends. It doesn’t matter where you find your medicine or what it is – so long as it helps to heal your demons and sets them free.
What matters the most is that you never stop taking it.
You’ll never win the lottery is you never buy a ticket. The same logic works with healing. You’ll never get (and stay) healthy if you don’t take your medicine.
A couple months of white-knuckling my way through sobriety pass, clinging to my weakening willpower as my demons grew fatter and heavier. I paraded around as though I had this thing in the bag. Like I was winning. But, the less I wrote, the more those demons grew. The antibiotics wore off and they started to colonize. The sickness was growing again inside me.
I was hanging on to the belly of airplane at 30,000 feet and was about to fall – but I couldn’t and wouldn’t admit it. I was airborne, but I wasn’t flying the plane.
Hubs and I decided we’d celebrate what seemed like success with a bottle of wine. I was 96 days sober, and you know how it goes – I was sure I could handle just one drink. Or maybe two. We’d just see how it goes. The thirsty parts inside cheered me on: “You’ve gone this long sober Shawn, you’ve proven you can take it or leave it. Go on. You deserve it. Have a drink.”
So I did.
It seemed like a good idea at the time (aka: The Alcoholic’s Anthem, and the title track of the score to my sobriety’s demise).
Let the record state that it was not a good idea.
That first drink was underwhelming. It didn’t deliver the choir of angels I was hoping for. But somehow, at a point I can’t even put my finger on today looking back, that first drink opened the floodgates and I was washed away.
Washed back to the beginning. Back to before rehab, as though everything I had written while there was erased or scribed by someone else. That one drink turned into 8 more months of nonstop drinking, the scary part being the transition from just 1 drink to 4 bottles of wine a day was so subtle I have no clue when I lost control again.
Actually, I do.
I lost control long before that fatal first drink.
I lost control when I started taking my sobriety for granted.
I lost control when I stopped taking my medicine.
I only drink a little, but when I do, I turn into another person, and that person likes to drink a lot.
Almost a year to the day that I first admitted I needed help and prepared myself for rehab (January 31, 2017 – also the first entry on this blog) – I woke up quite certain that I was in hell and I had died what felt like a miserable, painful death. It was the only explanation for why I felt so awful.
No, it was just another epic hangover that happened to feel like the sum of every single hangover on earth that morning, squeezed tightly inside my head and overflowing into my heart. For the first time in 328 days, I sat down to write in lieu of what seemed like the impossible feat of simply focusing my bloodshot eyes.
It was the first dose of medicine I’d had in nearly a year, like a drop of water had fallen into a dish of oil. It was a small bit of clarity in a sticky situation.
I haven’t stopped writing since – now just 47 days into the absolutely awesome new normal of thriving sober, but well aware of my ballsy mistakes the first time around. I treated my recovery as though it had bookends, like it was a tidy little collection of things I could check off, held together with a beginning and an end.
A sort of To-Do List to undo addiction.
We all know how wrong that is. It’s an ongoing, never-ending novel that requires constant editing, proofing, re-writing, and re-reading. It’s a bottomless bottle of medicine that I need my dose of daily, and this blog is my pillbox.
Welcome to my pharmacy.