On Grief in Sobriety, and Elsewhere.
Yesterday I wrote, “I am not grief-stricken that I cannot drink”. That’s true. But it wasn’t always. I think I learned something about grief and sobriety, that I learned outside the rooms of AA, but which is fully applicable there (And which I have heard people in the rooms also say, after I learned it elsewhere.). And what I learned about grief has served me well in other places in my life as well.
One of the looming obstacles to sobriety, the enormous leviathan we cannot see around, is how we will live without drinking. When alcoholics are ready to begin the journey to sobriety, at least, alcoholics like me and my compatriots in AA, they come to a point where drinking is truly intolerable. It is horrible and revolting. And yet it is a strict compulsion, that we have no way around. We cannot fathom life without the drink. Literally. We do not understand how to live, how to get up in the morning, move through a day, and go to bed at night, without a drink. Those concepts are utterly foreign to us. We don’t know what a day is for, if it isn’t for getting drunk.
So the idea of sobriety is bewildering, in the first place. Because there is a gulf between the alcoholic and the world, we don’t know how to exist in the world without swimming a river of alcohol to get there. And it’s terrifying. Because alcohol is how we suppress our fears, unrealizable dreams, social anxiety, failure, rage. Of course, it doesn’t actually suppress those things. Too many people who know alcoholics know that when we drink, these things may come bursting out of us at any time, untelegraphed. But to us, we feel like those feelings are suppressed, because we don’t have to engage with them in a meaningful way which might resolve them.
Eventually, hopefully, we find someone or some institution, who understands what we are going through and can help us begin to take the first ginger approaches to sobriety. The work we do before step one. Seeing that we truly cannot take another drink, it is killing us. Realizing that we don’t have any practical way of not taking another drink. If we succeed at this, and we don’t die in detoxification (a real concern for serious alcoholics… see a physician), then we generally go through a second phase of bewilderment. Euphoric recall.
This is when we look back at our drinking, with the perspective of a few days, or even a few weeks, of abstinence, and we only see the good times. We see parties where we met the girl, or sporting events where we drank to victory. I saw elegant dinners, and cooking risotto with white wine. Beer with my father while playing chess. I saw the things I enjoyed about drinking, and I suddenly had difficulty seeing the things I hated, the pain I caused. Fortunately, I was among other alcoholics with a bit more time than me, and wonderful counselors who knew how to upbraid this common period of early recovery. Euphoric recall kills a lot of alcoholics.
I was taught to grieve. Grief had always been something thrust upon me, unready, uncertain, unfair. Death or divorce or uprooting and relocation. I was often comforted, sure, but not in a way that allowed me to learn to process the feelings and grow from the experience. So I calcified. A slow fibrodysplasia began in me, from childhood, through youth, into adulthood, and I saw grief as an emotion to be battled. Defeated. I saw most emotions as unwelcome intrusions: suffered, endured, disposed.
I learned to grieve. I came to see, through the nearly miraculous work of some truly gifted counselors, grief not as the spasm of anguish and rage that comes with loss, but the process of examining myself through the lens of departure. Yes, I was losing something. Something I loved. But I was being made better for it. All change is, in one way or another, a fire. For me, anyway. It is painful and excruciatingly hot. Transfiguring. Existentially terrifying.
But ash is purified. And fireweed is a blossom of grace and elegance. Grief, as I have learned to experience it, allows me to honor what I’ve lost, and sets the cornerstone of what comes after. Grief is the process of emotionally stockpiling to rebuild, for me. It is the respite before the muster.
When I grieved for alcohol, I was able to see what it was that alcohol gave me: shelter from an endlessly risen tide of astonishingly painful emotions. Courage. Shamelessness. And I was able to see what alcohol took: industry. Ambition. Dignity. I was able to accept that I was losing something I loved. Something I thought I needed. And I was. Because my grief was not simply for alcohol. I was losing part of my self. A part of my identity. A part of the person I had chosen to be.
I have come to see grief as one of the foundational strengths that I can deploy to move forward in life. I may not have this job next year. I hope I do, but I don’t know. If I don’t, I’ll grieve for it. And then I’ll find the next stage. If that means moving to Singapore, I’ll grieve for my friends, my city, my country. My life here. I’ll grieve for what I was, for the image I had for myself in this place. And then I’ll build a new life, in a new place, having marshalled the resources that have always been within me, but which I now know how to find. I have my dignity back.