Author’s preface: I am profoundly grateful that I have not picked up a drink or a drug in over twenty years. I am profoundly grateful for the life I have been given as a result– a life filled with joy and pain and doubt and love. And I recognize and honor the fact that it can all be gone in an instant. I did not know Phillip Seymour Hoffman, but I recognize myself in him. I did not know him, but I could be him, in a moment, an instant, a single breath. I feel the pain of his loss, selfishly perhaps, because it could just as easily have been me.
What follows is my story, which could just as easily be his. For all the pain of addiction – what ever those addictions might be, whatever the demons we seek to chase or destroy – there is hope. There is joy.
Zichrono liv’rachah – may his memory be for a blessing, and let us say “Amen.”
You’d think that after 20 years, this would be easy.
Well, maybe not you, but I did. I thought that after 20 years it would be easy to tell the story of these past 20 years. I am, after all, a writer. I do the words. That’s my thing. More than most other things, I know how to tell the stories – some filled with wonder and light, some much harder, all twisty and dark-cornered, with frayed threads, but which, with infinite and practiced patience, can be woven together into a threadbare whole until a new story can be found. Sometimes wonder, sometimes hard and tinged with light.
You’d think, after 20 years – of living this life and mending all these frayed and broken threads, of finding purpose and dancing with God, of unimaginable pain and unbounded joy – of living this life, actually living a life filled to the very edges with life, with everything: love and anger and doubt and fear, failure and triumph, all the stuff of a life jammed together and barely contained – you’d think…
So why isn’t this easier?
Why is it so difficult to strip away the artifice and just tell the story, spare and unadorned and achingly simple? Why can’t I just say there was a time, a long time ago, when time was stuck, when nothing moved and nothing changed and nothing filled me and everything failed me. And this is the story of how that all changed.
I was taught, early on in my anonymous recovery program, that when you tell your story, you say what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now. Simple.
So, what was it like? I like to believe that that’s where the story takes a sharp left turn away from simple, passing complicated in a few easy strides, never looking back. That’s the story I tell myself. I like the drama of that, the hint of darkness and the veiled promise of lurid disarray. As comfortably as I live in that drama, I remember what a friend told me one night, early in our sobriety, as we sat in my car under cover of a midnight sky, just learning the rules of friendship in a sober world. I told him my stories through the lens of my living chaos theory. And my dear Jonathan, my new and newly sober friend, he listened, allowed me to rant, took my hand when I’d finished and said “Stacey; you’re not as evil as you think you are.” I may have hated him in that moment.
That’s the thing, really – I want complex. I want drama and license and chaos. But the simple story, the easy story is this: There was a time when I was empty, and in my emptiness, time stood still. No light. No sound. Just an eternity of empty. Who needed chaos when I had despair? Who needs hope when you can chase more – more anything, take your pick: alcohol, drugs, sex, money. Strange, but no matter how much I drank, no matter which drug I used, the empty never got filled. All the despair, all the hopelessness, untouched. Untouchable. An infinite void fed by subtraction stew.
And after twenty years of forever, twenty years of standing motionless on a roiling sea of empty, twenty years of my motionless, intimate dance with self-destruction and more, I was done. That’s the “what happened” part. I was done. I got sober. Easy – got sober. Ha! Just don’t drink, right? Easy. How the hell do I do that?.
They told me, those people in the rooms, from their vantage points of a decade, a year, a day, an hour of sobriety “Don’t drink and go to meetings.” Don’t drink? What? How do you not drink? How do you not chase that thirty seconds, where you finally sit in your own skin without feeling the need to crawl out of it, that singular instant of time where all the noise in your head stops and you can breathe, really just breathe? Thirty seconds – that’s all you got, ever. Thirty seconds, where you fit and the gears didn’t grind against you and you could just be. And God, what I wouldn’t give – what I didn’t give – to chase those thirty seconds, again and again, with every sip. Don’t drink? How the hell do you do that?
And they all of them smiled, and they nodded, and they knew – all of them, from their lofty vantage point of a decade or three, a day or two, an hour or so – “Don’t drink. Go to meetings. It gets better. Simple.”
I used to not believe in miracles. I used to believe that God, if God really existed, had set me up to fail my life. I used to believe that I couldn’t live a life without drinking.
It’s amazing the changes that happen when you finally can’t imagine having to take one more drink. It’s amazing how infinitesimally the universe shifts when the pain of drinking becomes more than the fear of not. How profoundly simple life became: don’t drink. Again and again, one second, one minute, an hour or three, and you just don’t drink. No matter how much the pain of sobriety threatens to swallow you whole; no matter how exposed and raw you feel – every minute of every day, with not even an ounce of anything standing between you and the rest of the world; no matter how much you’re tweaking and want to crawl inside that bottle.
Again and again: don’t drink, go to meetings, and the seconds crawl into minutes and stumble into days and bound into years and you suddenly have time. And you breathe, finally breathe. My God, you breathe and the air is cool and pure and fills your lungs like light. You breathe, and suddenly you have a life, that moves and leaps and dances. And you look back, and it’s twenty years later. Twenty years, and you say: simple.
And now? Now I have a life. A life by no means simple or easy; it wouldn’t be mine if that were the case. It is a complex and rich tapestry that is filled to its very edges with life – with love and light and pain and hope. There has been despair enough to fill a thousand lifetimes, and hope enough to bring me to a breathless stop. I have been given gifts unimaginable. I have sought redemption and been offered forgiveness. I have learned to live with doubt, and revel in contradiction. I live in the miracle of a day, a day that stretches before me with infinite possibility and endless hope, filled with simple stories waiting to be found and told and lived, I have found a life that is mine, that moves and breathes and is filled with all the stuff of a life. I have found God, and I allow God to be. Just be, just as I believe God allows me to just be.
There was a time, a long time ago, when time was stuck, when nothing moved and nothing changed and nothing filled me and everything failed me. And this is the story of how that all changed. This is the story of how it got better. This is the story of how I came to believe that I was never empty. This is the story of how I learned to breathe.
For all the blessings that fill me, for God’s grace that lifts me, for all who teach me, simply, to live a sober life and hear God’s voice, I give thanks, with humble and profound gratitude.