Stay With Your Loneliness: Field Notes on Sobriety
Around a decade ago, a special kind of “bad day” chewed me up and spit me out into a corner to cry. It was a 5% self pity, 95% yes-that-really-happened kind of day. While the events themselves are irrelevant, something changed, particularly my relationship with alcohol and other forms of quick, convenient escape from sadness and pain.
The crying slowed and I shook my mind free, giving my cheeks a few punishing slaps. I called a couple friends to meet me for drinks—I needed a quick dose of forgetfulness and people who didn’t ask. Until then I was an occasional Mike’s drinker, but that night's prescription: a dirty martini with extra olives.
Our server passed me my order, the lone utility drink in a mix of sweet and sticky daiquiris. Before taking a sip I looked down, side-eyed, at my eight-dollar selection: “I need you to do something for me.” If martinis could speak, the cloudy mixture answered audibly, “You don’t even need to ask.”
My pulse quickened. The bridge of some love song coaxed me as I opened my mouth and sucked in a shaky breath of anticipation and my heartbeat burst out of my eardrums like right before a first kiss. I got it over with. My bones let down. I looked into the glass for another answer and caught the olive juice mingling with the gin just right, cloud-wisps curling in a late afternoon sky, like before when I’d look up to speak with God. Tonight I spoke down to my personal cloud and ohmygodIloveyou, my bones clenching in excitement and letting down again as I sipped. I finished the first and had another.
A few minutes ago it was me and Martini against the world. Suddenly the world softened and circled around me, its sounds warm and muffled, and I sat and swayed, my friends dancing a few feet away. The world held and rocked me and I softened into its robotic arms like a fetus. I opened my new eyes and everything was beautiful. “See, I’ve got you. You’re safe. I’ve got you.” This. Yes, this is why people drink. This is why I will drink. I’ve joined the club. We come here to be alone together, together in steel safety and solitude. We can feel anything. We can be anything.
I woke up safe in my own bed the next morning with a slight headache. Morning sun pricked my skin, and I remembered. Yesterday was behind me but the why-I-drank remained present as ever, asking me—what now. Sure enough, the why had remained, unmoved and unexamined, gnawing on my heart long after I had medicated. It didn’t matter, though—I had discovered medicine.
My affair with instant-escape continued into my late twenties. Already skilled with “going somewhere else” if need be, alcohol met my madness in a new and unparalleled way. My excuse: I’m a uniquely high-strung and stressed person. My thoughts are too sharp, too clear. Thinking hurts. Feeling hurts. I’d be crazy not to use this. It calmed the anxiety, broke the tension, freed my mind, and best of all: I didn’t have to feel, or at least I didn’t have to feel as much. I had joined a club after all: the club of the walking distracted, the walking dissatisfied, the walking numb.
In the long and short years since then, alcohol and I have made peace. I can enjoy it now and again, but I remain aware of a subtle hubris growing around and amongst my peers (perhaps limited to Gen Y? or a basic human disorder?): “We do alcohol differently and better than our parents did.” Many of our folks were fearful teetotalers or closet alcoholics, and the lucky kids got a taste of wine with their spaghetti—and never had to dream about magical booze-land or swear off whatever it was that made our parents “crazy as hell.” But no matter where we came from, our pursuit of equilibrium—“everything in moderation”—may come at a cost.
While sobriety literally means “not intoxicated,” expanded definitions include broader concepts of restraint, control, and levelheadedness in any area we may consider ourselves frail. Sober-mindedness, then, includes our efforts to look our propensities square in the eye and decide who wins. For some of us this means quitting. For others it means naming what we’ve let in and given access to (even the good things), the conveniences, distractions, and interruptions to steady rhythms of rest and enjoyment rather than the cycle of escape and guilt. Unplugging from that social app, redrawing boundaries, evaluating our comfort consumptions, social calendars and spending of resources. What does it mean—for each one of us—to be simply and fully engaged, breathing through life? Are we siphoning air from the wrong sources?
Returning to a “sober” state reminds us of our limits and our liabilities, guides us to feel rather than fill, standing still in the slow hours rather than escape from them, and best of all, remain our true selves, for our own sake and for others who need our story, even and especially the grief and guilt parts.
Theologian Henri Nouwen kept a journal during a time of darkness and personal loss, and his entries eventually became The Inner Voice of Love. Nouwen’s raw collection returns to the theme of ultimate hope while charging himself to find comfort in discomfort:
“It is not easy to stay with your loneliness. The temptation is to nurse your pain or to escape into fantasies…It is important that you dare to stay with your pain and allow it to be there. You have to own your loneliness and trust that it will not always be there. The pain you suffer now is meant to put you in touch with the place where you most need healing, your very heart.”
What we want to run from—the starting place of our pain—is also the starting place of our healing. There is no healing outside of where the pain lives. And that’s where hope is born, in living and breathing through the feelings and where they point us. Where our pain or our past is screaming, it’s screaming loudest not for more medicine, more distractions, more accolades—but air and acknowledgment. And eventually the place of our pain is where others can come to draw water.
Nouwen continues, “You feel overwhelmed by distractions, fantasies, the disturbing desire to throw yourself into the world of pleasure. But you know already that you will not find there an answer to your deepest question,” the question of meaning and purpose.
We are meant to notice subtleties and changes, feel the outcome of our words, let tiredness keep us safe, let sickness remind us of our limits, let tears prompt us to seek answers or apologize, and even let solitude be our transformation.
In Way of the Heart, Nouwen discusses meeting surrender in solitude: “I have to face in my solitude…a nothingness so dreadful that everything in me wants to run to my friends, my work, and my distractions so that I can forget my nothingness and make myself believe that I am worth something. The task is to persevere in my solitude, to stay in my cell until all my seductive visitors get tired of pounding on my door and leave me alone. The wisdom of the desert is that the confrontation with our own frightening nothingness forces us to surrender…”
Compulsive distraction and escapism begins with a lie—we can stay ahead of the silence, the emptiness, the ache. But we cannot stay ahead, and we cannot chase it down. Embrace the ache as a friend, a faithful reminder of our frailty, as loyal to the body as hunger and thirst. The tragedy of escape is we’re not really escaping anything after all. We’re letting pain take over until there’s nothing left but waste. Compulsive distraction blinds us to where we need healing, and in our running and crowding out, we are wasting our story. Have we considered how our pain may be part of something bigger than our own story of personal survival?
Even now, my body counts the input: ticking clock, room slightly cooler than comfortable, missed opportunity in a conversation this morning, awaiting what could be an uncomfortable phone call later, rehashing the good and bad in days past, anticipating the good and bad in the days to come. This is life. It is sandpaper and sandpaper brings out the shine in all of us. Can’t I let it shine me, that you may see me? Won’t you let it shine you, that I may see you? Won’t you let it shine you, that the rest of us may finally see you in all your awkwardness, brokenness, and pain?