Drinking

A Lesson Will Repeat Itself Until Learned

The words I'm writing today, for me, are about drinking. But what I'm really sharing is the experience of accepting a lesson that's been knocking at my door for years now. All of us have these lessons — the ones we know we need to learn but we just don't want to. The ones we let in to varying degrees many times, but find any excuse not to digest. For some it's a pattern in relationship, or a habit of self-talk or self-treatment. Sometimes it's a specific challenger with a face (chocolate), other times the messenger might be less defined (depression).

What I am talking about today is the time we decide to actually face the lesson that's stalking us — to try to learn it, once and for all. I've come to believe the Universe will present you with the same lesson time after time until you embrace it.

Last week after my most intoxicated night in a while I decided to quit drinking. Alcohol seems to be the thing that keeps coming up for me. I have faced this challenge (to drink or not to drink) many times over the past 10 years, and I've looked it in the face and walked in the other direction every time until now. 

What happened the Saturday morning I made this decision was that I saw, for the very first time, a connection between drinking and my success or non-success in life. Notice, I didn't say failure. I'm not afraid of my life running out of control due to drinking, though at one time this was a real fear. One way I've avoided whatever lesson drinking is trying to teach me has been to not let it run out of my control. I recognized my boundaries and when I approached the edge of becoming dependent on alcohol to the point of no return, I backed off enough so I could keep indulging my habit without it being a real "problem". Because then I'd really have to face it. 

The "non-success" I'm talking about is this: a duller life than I'm capable of living. A muted life, if you will, where I exist as a pale comparison to the person I might be without the influence of alcohol. A life where I might "dance around the perimeter of who I'm meant to be", as Gabby Bernstein would say. 

It makes it hard, this gray area. I'm not physically addicted to alcohol. I'm lovingly drawn to drinking in certain social scenarios, but at times I also derive truly nourishing pleasure from it. Over the last few years I've changed my relationship with drinking to one that we call "healthy" — perhaps engineering this change is another example of avoiding the lesson, I am not sure.

I drink now only when I feel that my body wants it, and typically this is just one drink. (Contrarily, I spent the last ten years drinking in the face of very clear signals from my body to not have another.) I only drink things I love the taste of (I've bid adieu to Coors Light because it tastes horrible). I hardly drink alone, and I am fully capable of being in social settings without a drink in hand at all. 

So you can see I've convinced myself I'm not physically addicted to alcohol, and this isn't a piece about the ill-effects of alcohol, or going sober, or even of self-reflection on change.

This is a piece, during the experience of change, about stepping up to the plate for life's most meaningful challenges. I am going to talk to you honestly about why alcohol is bad for me, right now("Right now": I can't even bring myself to commit on paper to a journey of sobriety, if that's even where I'm headed. That's how fresh and in this I am.)

How It Began

When I was 18 years old I left home for Madison, Wisconsin, bright-eyed and ready to party my face off. I moved into my freshman dorm room and quickly became friends with my roommate and some girls on our floor. 

When I arrived in Madison my drinking regimen was as follows: take shots, drink a few beers while overconfidently playing drinking games, have fun for approximately 4 hours, get sick, feel much better and go to sleep. 

As though my entrance to college flipped a light switch, my experience of drinking changed the moment I arrived. The first few nights out I didn't even realize this change was happening. Why would I? I'd wake up in my bed, hazy about the night before but everything back in place (meaning me, home, with at least most of my things). So I spent the first few days of "welcome week" over the moon about my new college life, and even a tad proud that I hadn't yet had a night of being sick. 

Halfway through this week I had a planned trip to NYC for a family wedding. As my cousin (the bride) and her husband are both UW-Madison graduates, most of their young guests were too and I was the baby Badger of the group, ready to consume anything and everything sent my direction.

I arrived and went directly to their rehearsal dinner. I remember very little of that night but know that I did not wake up in my bed at home with everything in place. Instead, I woke up without clothes on in my parents' bed. They vertical, me horizontal at the foot of the bed. There are a lot of embarrassing things about this situation but what perplexed me most was that I didn't remember any — not one tiny iota — of how I ended up there. (I'd insisted on sleeping at the foot of their bed and being the angels they are, they relented.)

The next night, the night of the wedding, was the same except this time I woke up in another cousin's hotel room and all of my belongings were gone. I nearly missed my flight back to school. 

I hadn't been sick either night, there were simply major portions of the night missing from my memory. And so I entered the world of blacking out. Unfortunately for me, and for the people in my life, I seemed to be a fairly functional blackout. I could have long (often aggressive) conversations and travel long distances on foot (or even by car, the most frightening of all scenarios). My friends gave me the name JoAnn La Guida for the time we spent together when I was blacked out and over the years that amounted to a lot of time.

Those of you who are familiar with the life of blacking out know that once it starts it just seems to keep happening. For many periods of my twenties I couldn't escape this loop. Even nights of fairly minimal consumption would sometimes send me into a blackout. And I am talking about a real blackout, not a brownout where things are unclear but can be vaguely retrieved. Black. Out. To my conscious self it was as if none of it ever happened. Thousands of hours of my life. 

And the times where I drank heavily were even worse. I could regale you with stories of dangerously intoxicated nights and scenarios, but my intention is not for this to be an epilogue of drinking stories. 

The picture I want to paint is that my experience of drinking has been different than that of many. Which is why, I'm sure, my relationship to it now must be different; why this is the lesson I'm facing, and others aren't. I've found this to be a slow conclusion to draw. As a society we look at many things from a one-size-fits-all perspective, sometimes for the very reason I mentioned earlier: to avoid facing personal lessons we're supposed to. 

But that is not how things are. We are individuals who each have a unique purpose and experience of this world. The food and activity and pleasures that are right for me are different than the same things that are right for you. It's time I, or maybe we, accept that. 

The First Few Hundred Signals

The first time I asked myself if I should stop drinking was during my freshman year of college. Surprisingly, it wasn't after I was written up for chasing an RA around the dorm in my underwear (which I only learned about when I was called to a meeting to discipline me for doing so, and the story was read to me verbatim). It wasn't after waking up one morning, to my surprise, with a broken ankle. It wasn't after assaulting my boyfriend via text and breaking up with him for no good reason (which happened a million times). 

What first triggered concern was an ongoing physical thing. I find this is often true — that when we're blindest to something, we need the most striking and relentless measures to grab our attention. I began waking up from sleep because my hands and feet were dead from lack of circulation. And then one morning I dropped a Snapple bottle all over the dorm lobby because I lost control of my hands. That was what scared me. I believed I had drinking-induced multiple sclerosis, a condition I made up but still believe has some plausibility. My biggest fear at the time was living in permanence. Unchangeable damage: alcoholism, chronic disease, committed relationship.

I started going into spirals of fear about whether my drinking was a problem, usually on Sunday mornings. For a few years the Universe presented me with this question almost every month. 

I'd avoid the answer in all the ways I knew how. The most effective way was always to compare myself to the people around me. Everyone else is drinking like me, I'd say, so there's nothing wrong. First it was my peers who were my best comparison case — everyone my age is doing this, and we are all alright. 

As time passed, older generations became an even more comforting comparison. My parents are completely fine, and look how they've managed alcohol their whole lives. I am jusssst fine. In fact I'm ahead! I eat well, sleep well, practice yoga. 

I put myself in a box and put everyone else in the world in it with me. When I looked at it like that there was nothing wrong with continuing on as I knew how — I was nothing but normal in the only world I knew. 

Why Drinking Means Non-Success For Me, Right Now

But recently I've been tapping into what makes me, me. What it is I'm supposed to do, what it is that I uniquely bring to the world, what are my personal strengths to hone so I can live a life full of purpose. What my life looks like when I step outside of the box that is the entire world I've known until now, the existence that is familiar.

I am a yoga teacher, and when I am able to be, a good one. Stepping into these shoes tipped me off to some profound realities about energy. Soon after I began teaching I realized it was very difficult to teach the day after drinking — even just one drink. I just could not seem to muster the energy required to get in the room and do what I needed to do. Because I had this responsibility making it apparent, I became acutely aware of my own and other people's energy levels. No doubt about it: even minimal consumption leaves me with noticeably lower energy for days. Once I recognized this I started to think back on all the work I've done in my past with less than optimal energy and how my output could have been different. I now know that, energetically, I've spent a lot of time operating below my capacity. It was fine for the work I've done in the past, but when I consider work I feel called to do, it isn't.

I am a writer, and when I am honest and stick to this practice, a good one. This requires energy too, a specific creative one. It requires that I'm reading and have the energy to ponder ideas and connect far-apart dots. There is a constant creative, optimistic energy that I need to be living in or it becomes very hard to do this. It's more than a day to day thing — it's a way of being over time. Just like drinking keeps me low energy for days and I feel the effects on my ability to teach, it also stymies momentum on creative energy. Essentially, it just goes away. And so I started to realize that when I'm drinking even minimally, but regularly, it's very hard to live in this manner of being creatively charged. 

I am a lover, and I have not been one for some time. I had the good fortune of knowing the feeling of deep, loving connection early on in my life. I learned what it was like to fall in love and to be all about someone. I felt what it was like to be a more passionate, talented and self-confident human than I could've been on my own because someone looked at me in a way I'd never been looked at before. I got to know myself when I'm in love with another person. All of that happened before I was of teenage-drinking age. 

I was in one long-ish relationship that began amidst life with alcohol. But upon reflection, drinking seems to have only hindered my chances at living in love again. Mostly I've let it get in the way. If I use the data available to me it shows me, without question, that I personally am more successful at loving to my capacity when I'm not drinking. 

This statement is true when I use loving someone else as my barometer and as true, if not more, when I consider my ability to love myself. Which is the only way, we learn, we can love another abundantly. When I'm drinking I second guess myself often. I like and trust my body less. Over time, I start to feel inflamed and from there I make decisions I otherwise might not. How can I love myself as much as possible when all of this is the case?

There is no other state of being that allows me to be as fully present in life, as generous, as creatively capable as the state of being in love. And as this is my greatest goal, the reason for existing in my opinion, I'd be a fool to let something like alcohol get in the way of that. 

What I Don't Know, What Comes After Right Now

From here my mind wanders to a future when I have "fixed" all this. When I've found the state of love I'm looking for, the success I'm seeking, the happiness that results. I want to rush there, because there in that place might be room for me to enjoy my healthy drinking habit. I just don't know. It's a comfort, for sure, to have that future in my head. 

The life I know is at war with my inclination to accept the lesson drinking wants to teach me. There is a strong voice in my head that tells me I can have it all, that puts me back in the comfortable box where all evidence says that drinking is just fine for me. 

It's taken me weeks to get to this place in this piece. In that time I have not yet had a drink, but my position on whether I'm stepping up to bat with this lesson has wavered countless times. I've gone back and forth, over and over again. On the one hand I am hesitant to say all of this and make myself a hypocrite when I inevitably drink again. On the other, at times I'm optimistically curious about what life looks like, truly, without alcohol. Who are my new friends? Maybe on the other side of alcohol is my sober soulmate. What does my body look like? Maybe without drinking I have the body of dreams. What will my new hobbies be? Maybe I pick up a newfound healthy habit, like those people who work out obsessively. What does my career look like? Maybe I'm meant to be some big time speaker, maybe this path is part of my story. 

I have no idea. And clearly, I'm not ready. But these words presented themselves to me the other day, and they give me solace:

"She was never quite ready. But she was brave. And the universe listens to brave."

So right now I'll step up to the plate and give myself the opportunity to learn this lesson. 

Joanna Cohen