Thursday, December 27, 2007

Twenty marbles

Today is my friends' 20th wedding anniversary, and whoops! they'll get their gift late, since I only mailed it this morning.

That means it's also a big anniversary for me: 20 years sober in AA. 20 years ago today I got loaded for the last time, at my best friend's wedding, and made the biggest decision of my life.

Hey, you'd drink too if you had to wear this dress!

In AA, as you rack up time in the program, you occasionally get a chance to get up at the podium and tell your story. According to the basic AA text, "Our stories disclose in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now.”

Some peoples' stories are funny, some are scary, some make you want to cry. Mine, I was always embarrassed to admit in meetings, is boring. I helped clean up after the reception by finishing off everybody's leftover wine on all the tables. Pretty gross. So that's the story: I acted like an asshole, I drove home snockered, lane lines seeming to writhe like snakes, my hands on the wheel and my feet on the pedals refusing to coordinate with one another. I got safely home. I sobered up as the afternoon wore on and thought: Oh. My. God. What did I just do? That's it. Low entertainment quotient.

There was another gathering at the bride and groom's house that evening, so I didn't dare hit the sack. For the rest of that afternoon I wandered around my apartment, swigging diet coke, picking things up and dropping them at random (with even less focus than I normally manage) and mulling over where I came from, and where I really really did not want to go.

The short version is that my family is rife with alcoholism. Most were genial Elwood Dowd types. Occasionally, someone would manifest the nasty, violent type, but by and large my older generation of relatives were wobbly, giggly bourbon-soaked southerners. The smell of Christmas, to me, was bourbon and water, mixed strong, radiating from every glass and wafting off every breath along with the equally ubiquitous musky Marlboro Filter smoke, till it filled the rooms of my grandmother's house, family Grand Central. I liked it. I found it spicy, warm, festive and comfortable.

I was more of a Gin Girl. Sloe gin and orange juice was my drink o'choice, though I could never bring myself to ask for the drink by name. I was relatively old the first time I got plastered, judging by my fellow AA-ers -- I was a college freshman -- and I experienced that wonderful feeling of being at-ease and socially confident. This! I thought, this is what normal people get to feel like all the time! Relaxed and happy to be themselves. After all my years of resenting God's depriving me of it, this is His gift to me.

After the wedding I somehow, for the first time, saw the brokenness of that promise. Saw that the "gift" had come from somebody I have no problem calling the Father Of Lies. Because after that first time, I never again managed to engineer the right amount at the right intervals to regain that pleasant feeling. It's a feature of addiction that one does not apply logic and say "This isn't working." One keeps trying. They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.

I kept at it, but it never gave me that delicious sensation again. At parties I'd try to tell jokes and somewhere between my brain and my tongue the words would twist into a nasty insult and make the listener blanch, while I felt like a victim of some kind of Star Trek Disease that mangles language. More often I just felt depressed, unsociable and lousy. Well then, obviously I had not had enough, or else the cheery feeling would be in full operation, so I'd swill some more.

I can't even explain why, on December 27th , 1987, I realized I was headed down a path that those older relatives, so charming and loving when I was a little kid, had taken later, as their lives deteriorated or ended too soon. Maybe the blessing was that I got drunk so early in the day, and had all day to think about it as I sobered back up, instead of conking out. Or maybe it was simply the right time.

I decided that the only way to avoid ever having to belong to AA was to quit. This is the part of my story that gets the only real laugh. Most of us discover that the decision is only the beginning, and that we need help from others who get it.

How can I do it? I worried. How can I explain this big change to people? This friend, for whom I was a bridesmaid, was also kind of a drinking buddy. We would meet for drinks and a plate of Ruby Tuesday's Super Nachos and share all the life junk that was going on. Was I ruining that?

Friendships often end when one makes such a big change. Bless her, she never questioned my decision, merely asked about it, then let me do my thing while she did hers. That's why we can tell each other anything, and why she's still my friend.

And dating?? How was I ever going to date, if I couldn’t do normal things?

Within days -- coincidentally? or by act of a Great Designer? We each have to decide that for ourselves -- people began to come into my life. People whose guidance, whose stories, and, sometimes, whose failures, all knocked me here and there but always forward. Kind of like a pinball.

Every region has its own traditions for AA members. Mine gave out "chips" for successful time in the program. A blue chip for increments of a year.

But I heard, can't remember where, of a group someplace where they give you a marble each year. The symbolism is that as a drinker, you've pretty much lost your marbles, and now you can start getting them back. I love this idea. Quitting is only the start. One can make some

insane decisions and generally act like one has lost one's marbles, even some time after quitting. I was 4+ years sober when I began to date my ex, 5+ when we married. Somehow, with the help of a Higher Power who, at my lowest point, enfolded me in a peace that passed all understanding, and the help of some of those same 12-step friends, I got through that whole episode without using.

So I can say I've got 20 marbles back. No, it's not my achievement. You can tell me how swell I am to have managed it, but that's bull. What got me to this point was a concept that I ran into in Christianity, but other traditions have versions of it. Whatever others think, I know that the strength does not come from me. It's grace. And no day is promised to me except today, by God's grace.

That's it. Coffee, doughnuts and free literature are at the back of the room. Thanks for the marble.


ronnie said...

O, Ruth, (insert higher power here) bless you... You're a lucky ducky - your "hitting bottom" was relatively dignified and self-determined! Much better than waking up (mutter mutter) underwear (mutter mutter) shoes (mutter)...

Okay - I shouldn't make light. But you did see the problem uncharacteristically early and deal with it uncharacteristically well.

Happy anniversary, hon. I'm glad you got back all ur marbles.


Sherwood Harrington said...

Ronniecat says that you worked "uncharacteristically early and... well." My experience tells me that your dealing with it at all constitutes something uncharacteristic all by itself.

I don't know if I can handle a saner nickelshrink, but here's wishing you more marbles in your jar, anyway!

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

8~) ronnie, nobody makes light of it better than AA members themselves! I've had some of my biggest laughs in meetings.

And Sherwood, a saner me is a distant and wholly speculative concept!

But thanks to all for the good wishes!

Christy said...


WOW! Please accept my late congratulations on your 20 years sober. What a huge accomplishment!

I come from a long line of alcoholics - I know from their experience how hard it is to quit. So glad you did.