Frost lined the edges of the porch windows one morning in February, 1996. My daughter had left for school. As I put milk back in the refrigerator, I noticed ice had built up on the coils again. The refrigerator was an older model and needed to be defrosted the old-fashioned way. I’d just done that a few weeks previously, so I was pissed to have to do it again.
I took all the packages of meat out of the freezer, packed them into a box, and stashed the box on the porch which was at a perfect sub-zero temperature for keeping food cold. As I began pulling foods out of the refrigerator, I saw that something had spilled. I moved vegetables into bags and pulled out the shelves. I found the usual odd packages of uneaten takeout as well as a rotting onion and a bag of moldy rice flour. Gross! I decided I’d better pull out all the food and all the shelves. I hadn’t done that when I’d defrosted the freezer the last time.
I even investigated the tray that catches water underneath the refrigerator. It was filled with brackish, fur-covered water. Totally gross! By this time, my brain started making connections between my cleaning spree and my alcoholism, and I became sort of fascinated with the whole process. I even removed the panel from the front lower portion below the refrigerator door. When I reached in to clean those external coils, I found piles of black dust and debris. This part of the refrigerator hadn’t been cleaned in years – way before my daughter and I had moved in. There was so much dust on those coils that I thought it was insulation. I pulled out handful after handful of dust and debris.
I’d taken my last drink, just a sip actually, on December 25, 1995. I’d decided it would be okay to drink the non-alcoholic wine because my friend was bringing it. I’d met her at a recovery retreat at Wilder Forest seven years earlier. If she was drinking non-alcoholic wine then I could, too, even though my friend wasn’t working an AA program. As soon as I swallowed the first sip, I knew it contained alcohol. I knew that I’d have to tell my sponsor and I knew that I’d probably have to change my sobriety date. I was pissed off. I was a little over a year sober at that time and I didn’t want to have to start counting my days all over again. It was kind of like seeing that ice dam in my refrigerator.
I told my sponsor. She encouraged me to talk to other people and to put out what had happened at meetings. I got various responses from, “No big deal. You didn’t keep on drinking so it’s not a slip,” to “It’s not about changing your sobriety date. If you have to, you have to. Just keep coming back to meetings,” to “You didn’t know it had alcohol in it so it wasn’t your fault.”
As I looked at what made my life unmanageable while drinking, I discovered things similar to the inside of my refrigerator.The thing is, I DID know that non-alcoholic wine has alcohol in it. And I knew that I planned to drink that wine anyway. Recovery requires rigorous honesty. I had spent the past six weeks re-reading and re-working Step One. As I looked at what made my life unmanageable while drinking, I discovered things similar to the inside of my refrigerator. In the refrigerator I found rotten food, ice dams, and dusty coils. In my life, I found the characteristics that led me to use alcohol in the first place. I’d used drinking as a means to seek out male companionship even outside my marriage. I’d used money and work as my Higher Power. I’d used alcohol to prop up my sagging self-esteem. I’d tried to control people, especially my daughter, and I still wanted to control situations, especially those that made me look bad. The worst characteristic I found, though, the one that was similar to those moldy foods and gobs of dust is that, before I had a solution to my depressed, fear-riddled, mixed-up thinking, before I’d started going to AA and other 12-Step meetings, before I’d learned how to connect with my Higher Power, or had even heard about the Steps, let alone started working them, I had wanted to kill myself. I’d felt that the answer to my life’s problems would have been non-existence—suicide. I didn’t ever try it, but I had contemplated it. I’d considered driving into the path of a semi or crashing into a concrete abutment. I’d thought about jumping into a river. I didn’t attempt any of those things because I feared that I wouldn’t actually die; that I’d still be alive, still have all my problems, and that my attempt would add the problems of disability. I eventually found my way to recovery programs and even later yet, to AA.
What I needed was a solution to my living problems, in addition to stopping drinking.I had used alcohol to pep me up, to make me feel more attractive, smarter, and funnier than I really felt. I’d used bars and alcohol as a hunting ground for male attention. During my very early drinking days, alcohol had sometimes been a fun lubricant in social settings and a way for me to emerge from a quiet, introverted cocoon. It had seemed to enhance my life and make me fit it. Eventually, however, screwdrivers, vodka gimlets, and hurricane cocktails led me to dark places and immoral situations that didn’t fit with my values.
What I learned is that AA is about more than not drinking. I’d tried to stop drinking on my own and I hadn’t been able to, not long term, anyway, and being dry hadn’t solved my living problems. I’d lost my marriage, my home, my profession all while attempting to not drink. The five years before my divorce, I’d thought that if I didn’t drink, I wasn’t an alcoholic. I became a very crazy person trying to fix myself. What I needed was a solution to my living problems, in addition to stopping drinking. I found that solution in AA, a program that has allowed me to live—not just sober, but also happy and free from my crazed thinking.
There’s a sentence in Chapter 3 of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous that states, “We had to concede to our innermost selves that we were alcoholic and could not manage our own lives.” I had to realize just how much I’d lived my life on the edge; just how much I’d wanted to run my own life—both when I was using alcohol as well as during those white-knuckled years when I’d tried not to use alcohol. My sobriety started with that sip of wine. I haven’t had to take another drink since Christmas Day, 1995.
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