A timely message from my much younger, unsober self.
The Unsent Postcard
I have a stack of unwritten postcards, collected from my travels, purchased with the intent of sending them to those back home. In recent months, I have taken to writing out these postcards to friends and family, both to cheer them with sunny images as they shelter in, and to support the United States Postal System.
Not long ago, I came across a card featuring a hand-colored photograph of a windmill in East Hampton, New York. To my surprise, it was not blank. Tightly scrawled sentences, in rudimentary French, it was meant for a friend in Paris.
No postage, never mailed.
17 Septembre, 1991
Salut! I am at the beach with my mother. My God! My poor back! I am ready for a big change in my life. We must talk. I’m going to write you a real letter soon.
Ton Amie, Maria.
Here I was, standing at the edge of big change, poised to plunge into some grand announcement, too large for the 4” x 6” space given. These words never crossed the Atlantic. Instead, I held them now, between my fingertips, twenty-nine years later.
What are the chances of this? I thought. Of all these blank cards, only one has writing, and not just any writing, but words that speak to my alcoholic “bottom” — the physical, mental and spiritual low-point of my young life.
My back hasn’t bothered me for years, thank heaven. I take it for granted. I walk with ease everywhere today. Until this moment, I’d forgotten just how bad things were with my lower lumbar at age twenty-four, that hell year when I couldn’t stand up straight without sciatica shackling my ankles, seizing my spine, and clamping down hard at the cervical vertebrae. This physical agony — an exclamation point to my mental and spiritual state — had literally brought me to my knees.
I spent weeks in bed self-medicating on whiskey sours and muscle relaxants. Somehow I’d convinced the corner pharmacist to dispense refills beyond the legal limit.
I‘m skeptical when people make meaning from random events. It feels self-indulgent to interpret every rainbow as a reference to my personal recovery. Yet finding this card, all these years later, didn’t feel like coincidence. It felt intentionally planted to remind me of why I’d sobered up.
It also felt like something I had to share with others.
In those mellow days following Labor Day, when the water is warmer than the salt air, I was with my mother in a rented bungalow at the tip of Long Island, now emptied of humans. I was twenty-five, unemployed, and reeling from a bad break-up.
I remember the lunch mom served on or about the day I’d written that postcard: linguine with shrimp and mussels, and flutes of rosé wine. Mom was a faithful clipper of the Wednesday food section of The New York Times. Maybe she’d sourced this seafood pasta recipe there, or maybe she’d been inspired by one of the influencers of Hamptons entertaining at the time: Martha Stewart or The Barefoot Contessa.
However it came to be, it was a memorable meal presented with panache, from a bare-bones rental kitchen. And it was a meal where my mother enjoyed alcohol as she always did, in moderation. More often than not in my childhood home, there was an appropriate wine, served in stemware, to compliment every dish.
My mother drank the way Jacques Pépin did on public television, and the way I always wanted to, but never could — with class. At the end of an episode of making something like, say, classic Beef Bourguignon, he would raise his glass of Cabernet Sauvignon in a toast: “Aah-pee Coo-keeeng!” and tilt it lightly to his lips.
But that’s not the way I drank this glass of blush wine. I downed it.
Plagued by sciatica, a still larger pain loomed; it had been moving in slowly for years, like a cold front, now dipping as an arctic depression over this lovely lunch.
I remember craving more flutes of Zinfandel than that one bottle held, but I was checked at two because mom was watching. Two drinks were the limit if you were female, and raised right — and you cared about appearances — which we did. But I couldn’t comply.
I found myself watching the waves from that deck all afternoon. I watched them crest and crash, one after the other, in rhythmic indifference to my pain. Then it hit me. It felt big. Big like the feeling I get reading an inspirational poem from an anthology with a daffodil or seagull on the cover. Though the feeling was big I, myself, suddenly felt small. And weirdly enough, I was okay with that.
It was a relief. The waves kept rolling in, oblivious to my situation. It was freeing to see that my pain — sharp and ugly — couldn’t stand up to the beauty of light and dark scattering the water’s surface.
Scared, self-involved me was no match for the folding waves. For hours I watched them flatten at the shore and return to the sea, gradually eroding the moat I’d dug around myself. Yes, my experience of this landscape could be captured in a bad sonnet in a book with a hokey cover — the kind you’d find in a hospital gift shop.
It was neither subtle nor original, my “white light” oceanfront awakening, but it was genuine.
The next day, a masseuse with strong hands and a soft voice got me to open up about my drinking on a massage table in Amagansett. A recovering alcoholic himself, Sean R. is much of the reason I made it to my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting when I returned to Brooklyn that next week.
A Bridge Back to a Good Life, Then Some Slippery Turns
As the postcard predicted, big change followed. “A.A. is a bridge back to life.” That’s true. I did cross over to a full life with marriage, kids, and a semi-detached house. But it was a life further into Brooklyn, and further from my home group, the A.A. group where I had first gotten sober and stayed that way.
Yes, I was still not drinking, but I can’t claim I was emotionally sober. Somewhere along the way I stopped going to meetings. Lost touch with my sponsor. Quit working with other recovering alcoholics. You know where this is going. Eventually, I drank.
It started small: communion wine on Sundays, the occasional “non-alcoholic” beer, and the argument with my dentist. He wanted to give me local anesthesia for minor dental work, but I pushed for hit after hit of nitrous oxide on top of that. I wanted to numb my brain, not just my molar.
“The idea that somehow, someday he(she/they) will control and enjoy his (her/their) drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal drinker.” — from Alcoholics Anonymous, Chapter 3, ‘More About Alcoholism’
I went along like this for years, skating on the edge of my sobriety, doing figure-eights on April ice, until seven years ago I found myself sitting in the sun porch of my friend Samantha’s historic, center hall colonial home.
Our kids were playing together somewhere on the periphery. I always found my way here, to this snug room off the parlor, with floor-to-ceiling bookcases and a loveseat. I’d marked it as my space, where I could step away, sink into the cushions and watch the cardinal at the feeder.
On this day I was thinking about my marriage. It had been a good run, but after fourteen years, two sons and a poodle, it was over. During the past months, this reality had settled over me like snowfall hitting pavement at the freezing mark, melting first, before catching hold, white landing on grey, gradually building, til nothing remained of the sidewalk below. I was scared as hell now.
Samantha stood over me with finger sandwiches and two flutes filled with golden bubbles on a silver tray. It had been so long since I’d been to a meeting, so long since I’d said out loud to a roomful of people: “I’m an alcoholic.” So long that I had a new circle of friends that never knew I had a problem and older friends who had forgotten that I didn’t drink.
In that moment, I forgot I didn’t drink.
Alcohol, catching sunlight, was presented to me on a slender stem, the way it had been twenty-two years earlier at the beach.
Why not? If ever I deserved a mimosa, it’s now.
I took a sip.
Holy shit, what the hell am I doing?
I ran to the powder room and poured the rest down a sink with a swan head faucet.
“The alcoholic, at certain times, has no effective mental defense against the first drink. Except in a few rare cases, neither he (she/they) nor any other human being can provide such a defense. His (her/their) defense must come from a Higher Power.” — from Alcoholics Anonymous, Chapter 3, “More About Alcoholism”
It had happened —I had drunk again. I never thought I would. It had been more than two decades since my last real drunk, and I had good reason never to drink again — actually two very good reasons, their names were Leo and Liam. Sure I could rationalize the Sunday morning communion wine and the occasional hit of laughing gas — after all, I was accountable to no one for my behavior now— but when I let that bubbly pass my teeth and slide down my throat, I recognized that for what it was —a slip.
I remember the taste of it clearly — that citrus effervescence in my mouth — and I remember my conscious decision to swallow. Like countless alcoholics before me, I had now proven what the Big Book drives home in the conclusion of Chapter 3.
I had had “no effective mental defense against the first drink.”
The Room Above the Fish Store
Thankfully, at the same moment, I realized my problem when I took that sip of spiked o.j. , I also remembered the solution.
Alcoholics Anonymous had worked for me, for as long as I had shown up for myself and others. What became obvious to me with this slip was that I’d do well to return to a community of recovering alcoholics if I wanted to get sober again, and stay that way. I needed to plug back into a sober support network.
So on the heels of my slip in late September, 2013, I climbed a staircase to a room above a fish store filled with retired seniors and flies circling overhead. I’d stepped into an A.A. Big Book meeting, already in progress. They were reading one of the personal stories from the back of the book, round-robin style. Right away I could see myself in ‘The Housewife Who Drank at Home.’ When she described herself as a ‘Jekyll-and-Hyde’ PTA mom, I lost it. That was me. Someone passed me a box of Kleenex. I will never forget that kindness.
Willpower and the passage of time are no guarantees against the first drink. I was humbled by this realization when I slipped.
I like my life today; some days I love it. I don’t live in unreasonable fear, but I accept this fact: on any ordinary day, my alcoholic mind could observe the oven clock turn five and think: A snifter of eighteen-year-old single malt whiskey, served neat, alongside a bowl of salted cashews, would be a fine idea!
And today I understand, right down to the jelly marrow of my bones, that this is typical alcoholic wishful thinking.
I also recognize — and appreciate — other approaches to solving problem drinking, or at least to blunting the devastating effects of alcohol and other addictive substances and habits. Some of these solutions have developed in my lifetime, and some have been there all along.
I have a friend who threw herself back into her childhood faith in earnest, and another who found help in Buddhist-inspired Refuge Recovery. I am happy for these friends, and for everyone who finds lasting recovery, however and whenever. And for those who have chosen the A.A. path, I am especially gratified to welcome back those like me — humbled humans who have returned to the fellowship later in life.
On the last day of this month, I’ll have seven years back in the rooms. Once again, Alcoholics Anonymous has been a bridge back to a good life. I’ve got a sunny apartment, two sturdy teens, and an Australian lizard. The ex and I have each other’s back in the co-parenting game. I’ve got a day job where I feel purposeful, and my writing at night, which lights a votive in my soul.
I was lucky to find my way back to A.A. at forty-seven, and lucky to turn up this picture-postcard now — this four-by-six inch card stock talisman, a reminder of who I was at twenty-five, and who I am now, twenty-nine years later — sandwiched between sunbathers on the Jersey shore and Niagara Falls at night. To me this is no coincidence: this postcard, lost then miraculously recovered, does parallel my own recovery, lost for twenty-two years, then found again in a new group, above an Italian fishmonger.
And so, my dear friend Delphine, here is the full story, the real letter I promised you, delivered now, almost thirty years later. You are not an alcoholic, but maybe some of this makes sense. I hope so. We must talk soon.
This piece originally appeared on Medium on September 13, 2020.