Liz Colville / LizCollville.com
The man on the subway had on many rings.
Big, hulking, silver rings. Rings with faces, like they were his body’s own gargoyles, warding off intruders. I stood over him for a few stops, watching. He seemed fixated on the ring I had hanging from my neck, which, being large and silver, would fit right in with his collection. He had a bible on his lap, a plastic flask of vodka, and an ice coffee take-out cup, lid and straw, into which he had poured some of the vodka. But he was also drinking vodka out of the flask, like he was preparing for something, meting out his poison in some long-perfected fashion. He kept adjusting all his skull and sphinx rings to ensure each was aligned centrally on his fingers. He had a twitch, and had his legs crossed so compactly, as if trying to take up only half a seat, as if trying not to touch his neighbors. I imagined he was on his way to AA and was going to pretend during the meeting that the vodka in the iced coffee cup was water.
At this point I didn’t know how these things worked. Maybe beverages weren’t even allowed in meetings. I just imagined him sitting in a circle of fellow alcoholics, legs crossed just as tightly as they were now, folded up against the world. His peers would glare at him as he loudly sucked the last of the vodka out of the container. This was the kind of place I needed to be. Instead, I drew caricatures of its attendees in my mind to convince myself of my difference.
Here’s one way of looking at drinking: it’s a problem if it causes harm to you or to someone else. This is how a sobriety coach, Natasha Silver Bell, put it during her appearance on the Since Right Now podcast. She wastes no time saying that people can bargain with themselves over what causes harm until the day they die. There are all kinds of ways you can tell yourself that you’re not harming anybody or yourself. If, say, you’re quietly drinking alone in your home, and your bad mood at your job the next day can be attributed to something else, like stress, or pressure, or blamed on other people, or the weather, or a hairy commute. If you can convince yourself you’re not in a bad mood at all. If you can convince yourself you don’t mind the hangover you have on Sunday, this day you had such grand plans for, even if it prevents you from leaving the house. The question becomes whether you see any of this as harm. The question becomes whether you care about the things you’re harming. If you don’t particularly like yourself or the things that you do, carry on.
The reason harm doesn’t scare us is because its damage is slow and imperceptible, like rock erosion. It’s not always, as a couple of brilliant recovering women writers have put it, a flashy, attention-grabbing thing, going toe to toe with the boys, though that happens to me too. That’s just a footnote of my drinking’s other “accomplishments,” an honorable mention at the very bottom of the high school sports scores. With her tequila shots at the away meet Saturday Colville now ties Cohen for most drinks consumed in three hour period. But there is nothing terribly showy about what happens to me. It’s not newsworthy. I don’t clamber up on tables, performing on a makeshift stage. I don’t run into oncoming traffic, or draw blood. But that’s how harm can go unnoticed, like an asymptomatic lesion, for years. It creeps outward, it reaches out and around itself, much like the crab legs of a cancer cell. Its side effects are funny, then odd, then a nuisance, then mildly troubling, then perhaps funny again, then, let’s hope, somewhere down the line, grave enough to warrant action, even if it’s outside action, a group effort, grabbing of the scuttling creature before it gets away. And by ‘gets away’ I mean, really, ‘dies.’
There is a point at which recovery might officially become a pipe dream, and this is what motivates me. In her final years, an alcoholic member of my family had taken to asking a recovering family friend about treatment. She asked with hope in her voice. But the hope was a darkness lit up by drinking. She would only ever come over to chat about it when she was drunk. She was only confident enough to speak of treatment, to visualize it for herself, because she was drunk. At least she asked, you say. But the thing about drinking is that over time it makes us goldfish-brained. At that point, she could ask all she wanted, but that is all she was able to do. Then she died.
Harm, in her case, was a complete rejection of the notion, shared by everybody, of how special she was: brilliant, creative, charismatic, beautiful, funny. Harm is inching ever so slowly towards a kind of person you never wanted to become. Harm is inching ever so slowly away from potentially everything, and eventually everything. Harm is creating an island for yourself on which to live, stranded and sulking, with access to much of the information the world holds, and as much alcohol as you can shamelessly fit into your house, but not much else. Harm is reaching through a blue screen with vitriol because that seems to be the only tone loud enough to reach other people. Hands are incapable of reaching them. Legs are incapable of running to them. The mind is now incapable of visualizing how to get to other people, or why you would. But it’s very good at visualizing why you wouldn’t. The alcoholic mind puts the cart before the horse and then sets the cart on fire.
The realization that my beloved relative and I had something in common came upon me slowly and silently, sidewinding up to me. A turning point came when I noticed–or should I say, decided–that my writing was “better” when accompanied by a drink (in what sense, I don’t really know. The act of putting pen to paper felt–easier? More exciting? The words flowed?) Then I noticed that the writing didn’t really get going until drink number two. I would go to a beloved coffee shop separated from my house by only a driveway, and order a cider, the “best” kind with its mere six grams of sugar per bottle, a concern for my health sometimes engaging me long enough to slow me down. But six is not zero, and twelve or eighteen grams was usually the total when all was said and done. It seemed worth it.
The writing of that period was fictional until it wasn’t, had an arc until it didn’t, was going somewhere until it sputtered into a ditch. I noticed how many bottles and glasses showed up in these stories, because the stories were coming from my life. My life was more “interesting” than it had been in awhile. I was in an exciting new relationship, which had engulfed me. There was “more” to write about. There were more people, more parties, more scenarios in which things could happen to people. What I didn’t understand is that this was just one way to be, one way to live, and for me personally, it wasn’t life so much as it was spectatorship, and more of it than I wanted to admit.
Walking out the screen door of my grandparents’ to join my friends on the lawn feels like being shot out of a cannon.
Giddy doesn’t begin to describe how I feel, or behave. I’m on a mission. I’m sixteen. I’ve probably had three glasses of wine. But there’s more to it than that. At dinner, my grandparents, as they do every night, deep-dived with me into a long conversation about music, books, politics, everything. The three of us never run out of things to say to each other. When they see me off after dinner, once the dishes are done, that’s my cue to put our conversations into action. As if this–dusk, on a beach, on a random Thursday in July–is when life really happens. That sounds like trouble, thinking the best plans are laid at night after a few drinks. In practice, my friends and I just sit around teasing each other, or we play games outside in the dark with the neighbors. The dreams discussed over dinner drain out like the receding tide.
Over the years our games get a little seedier, riskier. We wander off down the dark dirt road, foraging for our own drinks. These friends are a home within a home, a secure and softly adorned nest I will return to for the rest of my life. I also feel shot out of a cannon because I can’t wait to get outside to them, because I love them.
Of all the amenities drinking offers, the presence of other people is the only thing worth writing home about.
It’s the following fall and I’m knocking back three pints of cider the night before a big cross-country race, in the name of carbo-loading, in the name of being with my friends. My rituals the night before a race usually involved solitude, silence, an unsettled stomach, and a heavy dose of reading materials on my chosen sport. But my friend Sasha had called, so I emerged from my monk’s quarters to take the call on the upstairs phone. Come on, she said, until I agreed, abandoning my liturgical readings–online articles about the Stanford women’s cross-country team.
I remember everything about the night before that race, down to the clothes my friends were wearing and the way they had styled their hair. The scents of our perfumes clasping with cigarette smoke, and the more impenetrable smell of booze soaked into wood and carpet. We settled into our regular booth at the pub, by the door. It was raining, which kept us from going outside to smoke. I remember more about that night than things that happened to me three weeks ago.
What I don’t remember is having any expectation of drinking. It was part of the tablescape, the price of admission. It was not any part of us. We didn’t need it. Still, one drink became two, became three. For someone who should have been a lightweight, I certainly could hold a lot before anything like dizziness or nausea came into the picture. Even back then I remember thinking it was expensive to drink the way I did.
So my plans for that night had changed. So what? I was now going to see how much of an ass I could make of myself that night and still excel in the race the next day. This is the young person’s area of expertise.
The next morning, out in the countryside surrounding a rival school, it was pouring rain and the course had turned in most places from a dirt path to mud half a foot deep, made more difficult to traverse the more pairs of cleats sunk into it. People lost their shoes on this course, and kept going. I remember tying my shoes so tightly I could barely feel anything from the ankles down. I looked behind me early on in the race and saw my rival of three years a ways behind me, a flash of strawberry blonde ponytail in between trees like an animal running from the sound of humans. I kept looking back all through the race, a rookie mistake, until I couldn’t see her anymore. I did it partly because I couldn’t believe she wasn’t right there, within spitting distance, to terrorize me as she always had. I did it partly because I needed this nitrous dose of confidence, this compulsive reminder that no one was there, to keep going at all.
The thrill of this course was that it left the spectators in suspense. We wound through the muddy thicket for miles before we emerged out of the woods and funneled down a soppy green field to the finish line. My coach in his blue raincoat leapt in the air when he saw me spit out of there, somehow suddenly finished. He called to me from the periphery: Don’t look back.
I could not say that I had “run my own race.” It was a victory only in relation to other people. It never occurred to me to stop looking back, to run faster, to try to beat myself, try to grasp a finish time comparable to the ones the girls at Stanford were running, or to slip into some endorphin-fueled bliss that had nothing to do with accomplishment. I have no doubt that I had a smirk on my face for the entire race.
Keep up this attitude of invincibility and over time between the ass and the athlete, only the ass remains. The promising athlete is nothing but a fond memory the ass thinks about from time to time, particularly when she’s in the midst of deep reflection, which is nearly impossible to achieve, but which is easily faked by drinking.
Alcohol doesn’t have legs.
It gives the feeling that you can run up every dream you want to achieve. But unless you dream is to shatter the American beer mile record, forget it. The day I gave up sobriety for the first time, I had hiked from the top of the Grand Canyon to the bottom, and then back up again, on a 10-mile route called the North Kaibob Trail. It was a hot day, early September, and my boyfriend and I were nearing the end of a backpacking trip around Wyoming, Utah, Arizona and California. We had eaten all our food for this hike–beef jerky, peanuts, granola bars–on the way down the trail. I daydreamed about that food on the way back up.
It had been 30 days since I’d had a drink, a milestone I didn’t appreciate until I decided to order a glass of wine at dinner that night. There, in the Grand Canyon Lodge, we sat like children being treated by their parents, at white tableclothed tables, served by waitstaff in crisp black and white attire. Except we were paying our own way, treating ourselves, after nearly two weeks eating mostly cans of chili and plastic pouches of Indian food. I paused to appreciate how much my life had changed for the better in the past two years. My old friend Pinot Noir was on the menu. Suddenly a month without her seemed like a major accomplishment. Time to celebrate.
The sobriety that preceded this drink was not just some whimsical health challenge, or part of a training regimen, or an attempt to save money. I had intended it to last forever. I had worked my way closer to the end of a list of excuses why alcohol wasn’t bad for me, and while I hadn’t run out of excuses yet, I had reached a point at which harm was becoming too visible to ignore. It was making those excuses sound increasingly pitiful. The harm was spreading outward. It had reached other parts of my body besides my brain. It had helped create a little precancerous spot deep in my body that lit up for a time, then blinked off. The harm was also touching other people. It was perplexing, and in some cases hurting, people that I cared about.
Somewhere during that glass of wine, I went to the bathroom, which was reached through a courtyard in the center of the lodge. My walk there was slow and painful. I was so grateful for that pain. We’d walked nearly a hundred miles in two weeks, and at that time, the soreness of my body was a reminder of effort, of badassness. Of competence. Of life. At the core of me is a yearning for new places to find or lose my footing, a thirst for physical feats: running through deep mud back in that high school race with the three ciders probably still sloshing around my body. Scrambling up mountains on foot or descending on skis. Trying to turn those skis on crunchy ice combed through, like a road before it’s smoothed over with tar. Trickling down couloirs I didn’t have the experience to ski but did anyway. Climbing a wall until I got each move right, my entire body trembling from fear and fatigue.
And hiking this trail, which I raced back up against some imaginary record, practically running by the time I reached the final stretch, up steps covered in horse shit, dodging the shit to up the ante. These experiences are beloved not just because they are feats, but because of the thought process that occurs when they’re happening, and because of the emotion that occurs once they’re done. Fear harnessed by concentration, which is a kind of meditation, and later, the bliss of having beaten the fear. And the muscle soreness by which to remember it all.
This night, wine could reach my mind, but it could not take what had happened this day, it could not erase this euphoria, of blood circulating in celebration, of cells regenerating, of the body getting what it wanted, because the pain in my quads and Achilles heels was there to remind me. The wine was powerless because for me, when a drink follows physical exertion, it doesn’t always work the same, doesn’t dazzle, doesn’t meet expectations. It is enthusiastically swallowed up by a system that thrives on physical tests. That’s the kind of reaction that some people are blessed with every time they drink. After one or two, they’re relaxed and content. There’s nothing more for them to do than to enjoy the feeling, then go home to bed. The problem, if this only happens to you sometimes, is that you convince yourself to drink all the time in order to have a better chance to catch those blissful, somnolent episodes when they float by.
Drinking feels so much like forward motion. It feels so much like action. It feels so much like the rhythmic sound of my breath matching my footfall on the horseshit mud and wooden steps as I climb back up the Grand Canyon through millions of years of geological history. While walking, I realize that my time on Earth is marked in a weathered layer of sandstone rock about an inch high. Climbing up this trail is an homage to all Earth has accomplished without us, before our accidentally engineered weather patterns started dumping too much rain in the canyon, then not enough, then too much, turning water off and on like a child playing with a sprinkler. Before we built cars in which to seek safety when eight lightning storms pass overhead, one after an angry and inflamed other. Before we took a fruit that thrives in some of the most beautiful places on Earth and turned it into a seductive and nuanced potion that is good for us, every single one of us, I swear.
But the night of that hike, probably the toughest physical test since I’d run a marathon years before, one glass of wine turned into two. I struggled, thanks to my fatigue, to finish the second one, and finally gave up. I had a vision of my dinner drowning in the red vat of my stomach, the nutrients sterilized, useless and still as flotsam. It was an unnecessary amount of alcohol to drink. It always is.
There was a theatrical sunset happening over the canyon, but now I was nearly drunk and angry, vigorously rubbing kindness away to see what signals of pain might bloom bright red beneath. We had walked out to an unauthorized lookout point adjacent to the sanctioned ones to escape all the selfie-sticked people, but after a few minutes of blind bickering, he clambered away from me back to the trail and found another place to watch it all go down. I thought: the sky is not a real color. It is the color you’d customize a sneaker or a car: electric blue. And to think just hours before, I’d bent my sore knees to sit on a wall at the top of the Kaibob Trail to wait for him to emerge over the lip and thought: It’s so easy to be happy.
What do other people do?
I turn to other people for lessons. I can’t overcome the character of my body, the way it spends the currency of alcohol. But perhaps I can learn to fake it, to mime others like a dancer learning a new dance from an instructor, until the movements turn from tentative to fluid.
At first this means not sobriety, I tell myself, but slowing down, intentionally finishing last in the nonexistent drinking game I always seem to want to win, even though no one else is playing. So, back home from my trip, a drinker again, I decide to take my cues from other people. I wait when others order another drink, and then I wait some more. It feels like a crash diet. Too sudden and demanding of me. It doesn’t work. I’m trying to play the role of someone who likes drinking in moderation. The role I need to play is the role of someone who likes herself.
Before long I’m back to “normal.” I am forgiving of my habit, passive, listing. But I still do the things I’ve always done, and love to do. I find that my body still loves to run, that it hasn’t slowed with age, at least over longer distances. One Sunday I do a long run from my neighborhood of Crown Heights in Brooklyn to the track at McCarren Park. Then I run around the track 28 times. It’s the first chilly evening of the fall and leaves are starting to blow off the trees. The scene at the track is a pure celebration of life: children creeping into the lanes of the track to retrieve soccer balls, or meandering in and out of the lanes on tricycles. Fit-looking people punishing themselves with sprints, families listening to music at the grassy edges, a soccer match at the center of it all. I keep a faster pace than I have in years, spurred by my surroundings. It seems unreasonable to expect anything more than this from life.
The temperature drops as I run down Graham Avenue to my boyfriend’s house. Though it’s late on a Sunday night and my body is glazed in salt, and will be too sore, once I stop running, to do much of anything, a visit with him is the reward at the end of these 12 miles. Outside his house I stretch for a few minutes, glancing now and then into the windows. On the first floor, his best friend sits at his computer working. Above him, my boyfriend is in bed watching TV. He’s going through a rough patch. Maybe his best friend is too. But a feeling comes over me that it will be over soon. And a feeling comes over me of the permanence of this scene, a sense that the rapport and stability they share will last forever. Nothing lasts forever. I don’t know how I could be so sure. But the run has given me clarity. It has pruned away what does not matter. Still, it has not gotten me to the point where I feel that I figure somehow in their arrangement. That level of clarity never comes. Running can do a lot of things these days, but it can’t possess me with the easy feeling of belonging.
We were happy today.
That is a note I made last summer, a few weeks before our trip, in a season otherwise full of fear, cynicism and suspicion, the three furies that guide the drinking me. We were happy today. It seemed significant. We were facing challenges that I think only higher stakes, such as a child, would have allowed us to neatly overcome, and thank God we didn’t have one of those. One day of happiness was something to grab onto.
There was another thing I kept writing down last year, through the worst parts of the year and the best: Keep going. My life so far had been defined by as many left and right turns as I could manage. My family never stayed in one place for too long, and neither did the grown-up me. I liked to get lost. It seemed I didn’t want anyone to find me, not even me. Especially not me.
But he had changed that, at least a little bit. I was at least telling myself: Stay. Keep going. Because I loved him more than anyone I had ever met. That was new.
But I also drank. That wasn’t new. It was the fuel that kept me moving forward in a relatively straight direction. When my usual relationship suspicions rose up–that neither of us was ready to be serious, that we weren’t right for each other, that we’d never make it through life’s greatest hardships together–I’d push them down with a drink. Some people call that “relaxing.” “Letting loose.” “Having fun.” Then the end of the night would come, masticating the night’s good memories beyond recognition. The suspicions would put on a crude performance for an intimate audience of two: putting on my shoes to leave, sometimes leaving. I hate drinking, but not as much as it hates me.
The hiking, all those miles of lonely walking, staring at my feet or the dirt or rocks or reciting the logo on the back of his shoes like a mantra, Vasque, Vasque, forced me to visit places in my mind that I didn’t know existed, or which I had forgotten to feel around for, anesthetized by alcohol as I had been. I didn’t realize it at the time, but those hours of productive sulking up and down hills were the beginning of what I will tentatively call recovery. I was at least beginning to articulate some whys. While hiking, I thought more than once about the people who participate in the Self-Transcendence Race, a 3,100-mile annual foot race in New York City founded by an Indian spiritual master named Sri Chinmoy–less endurance sport than religious undertaking. If running and walking long distances is my higher power, so be it.
There is a part of me that still thinks this can’t be forever.
It’s hard to turn away from a need so human, so universal, so innocent because of its universality. A need to relax. A need to unwind (unravel is a better word). If I was ever wiped at the end of a long week, or even in the middle of one, I’d just wrap myself in the exquisite cloak of wine to help me summon a last, syrupy reserve of energy that would permit me to better enjoy my free time. And sometimes, more often than I would like to admit, I’d wear that cloak to appear self-possessing (a word that should only ever be used to describe enigmatic Henry James heroines). To appear more intelligent, more attractive, funny–just more, it doesn’t matter what kind of more. Just more. Years ago, I accepted help from alcohol to get there, without fully realizing what I was getting into, and now we have a contract. We have a handshake agreement. I owe it something.
There are so many different thread counts of feeling besides drinking, so many different brands to choose from. Nothing is quite so soft, so silky, so forgiving as drinking. But I at least know of a few other kinds that will do just fine. They must.
Where does self-possession come from? Does it come from the admiring glance of a stranger? From winning a race? Does it come from making a mark? From an idea being yours and no one else’s? Does it come from the approval of others? No. These things take more than they give. These things afford only brief surges of happiness. Like sugar. Like a shot of liquor.
It comes, necessarily, from things that no one else needs to see. Love. Squeezing a friend for a beat longer than normal when saying goodbye. Making a stranger laugh in a usually humorless situation. Fulfilling curiosity. A slow ascent up an ancient rock. The uninstagrammable. Effort. The process of fucking something up so many times and then fixing it, and then making it beautiful. The romance of all those failures, the curses, the self-loathing, the secret knowledge that success is imminent. The fine print that reads that something great is within, if you bother to look for it. These are the byproducts of self-possession. They get put aside because they aren’t glamorous enough, because they aren’t performance-ready. All the drinks I drank just to get through the daily performances of life, not realizing that my odds of having a good performance were made terrible by this prop, and were only getting worse.
On the last night of our trip, in Yosemite, we ate our final canned dinner atop a 10,000-foot mound, Cloud‘s Rest, watching flecks of forest fire glowing across the valley. A moth soared into the flame of the camping stove. She went off like a sparkler, I thought without a trace. That was a worthy kind of death, it seemed, or at least full of intention. It turned out, once the gas was turned off and only my headlamp was there to light the scene, that the moth was still a bodily part of this world, her wings, legs and torso still fully in tact, lying in the grease-stained bowl beneath the burner. The sparks, I’d thought, had been her body dissolving into dust, but maybe they were her light-seeking soul, which had gotten what it wanted, and more.