26.2 A SERIES
Everyone has dreams. Since I was about 16 years old, one of mine has been to run a marathon. When I cross the finish line in NYC on November 5th, I’ll likely do so with a recorded time of between 4 and 5 hours. In reality though, it will have taken me much longer to get there. There are things inside and outside of us that bring us closer to our dreams. There are also things that delay us, that push us so far away from our goals they are sometimes out of sight. If we are lucky, little by little, we are often able to transform those stumbling blocks into building blocks–they become the foundation for our strength, resilience, and ultimate determination. This series aims to uncover my long journey. Each week, I’ll share the people, places, and things that have brought me to the place I am at today, and that I hope will carry me from the starting line in Staten Island, to the finish line in Central Park. Mile by mile–this, is my 26.2.
Miles 23 & 24- To My Biggest Journey…Up Until Now
“Excuse me Ma’am! The door is locked, I can’t get out.” I had been shown into the small room because I had to pee, and now that I had finished my business, the heavy metal slider appeared to be jammed. I tapped on the large cloudy plexiglass window, trying to peer through as I got the attention of the officer. She didn’t get up to help me. Instead she stayed in her chair, looked up at me, rolled her eyes, and answered, “Yes Ma’am it is locked, you’re in JAIL.”
Although I blew a .28 on the breathalyzer, more than three times the legal driving limit, this night was not a blackout. I remember all of it. (In truth if I wasn’t arrested when I was, I would have been out drinking for several more hours.) The “door is locked cause you’re in jail” part of the story is one I like to tell and can have a big laugh about now. My Dad picking me up from jail is a more solemn memory; parts of it are painful to remember, but I’m determined to never forget.
After about nine hours in the drunk tank with three other women who were on a first name basis with the officer, and obviously not on their first rodeo in the county jail, I was informed that my father was there to pick me up. While I was anxious to leave the cell we were in (one of the woman had thrown up, and although it had been flushed from the toilet in the room, the sour smell lingered), I was terrified to see my Dad.
“Someone’s Daddy is here,” was the announcement delivered with a good deal of side-eye from the officer several hours earlier. When I was finally released and brought up to meet him, I understood that he had been there throughout most of the night. I walked over to him in the waiting area, he looked at me, and asked if I was ok. I could barely look him in the eye as I responded, “yes.” I was so ashamed.
As he drove me to recover my car from the impound lot, we barely spoke ten words to each other. Having been an emergency medical physician for the past thirty years or so, he asked me what my blood alcohol percentage was. When I told him he nodded his head and said, “Yeah, it smells like it was at least that.” We sat in silence the rest of the drive. At one point I thought about opening my passenger door and rolling out of my seat and into oncoming traffic. But I didn’t.
He dropped me at the lot. Just a bit earlier I was in a phase where I would move around to different sublets every few months or so. I was basically living out of my car. He was anxious for me to have some stability and discipline, so he offered me a room at his house. As I gathered my purse from his Volvo and signed the paperwork from the attendant, he told me that he expected to see me at home soon. I made up some lie about getting gas and some other errand I had to run to buy myself a bit of time, and told him I would see him shortly.
I got behind the wheel of my gold Mercury Tracer, shut the door, and stared through the glass at the other dusty cars in the dirt lot I was sitting in. Everything looked so ugly. My heart was heavier than it had ever felt, my anxiety was through the roof. I had no idea what lied ahead. As I went to start the car, my hand shook and struggled to find the precision to land the key in the ignition. I slammed the keys on the dashboard in frustration. I felt sick. I knew what I needed. I began fumbling around in the back of the car, underneath clothes and garbage. So many empties. I finally found what I needed underneath the passenger seat–a plastic pint of Smirnoff with at least 2-3 shots left. I grabbed the Minute Maid container next to it and knew I had lucked out, there were still a few sips left. I poured the rest of the vodka in with the orange juice, smuggled the pint bottle back under the passenger seat, and anxiously brought my breakfast to my lips.
For a second, I felt the relief and bit of calm that that first sip always made me feel. My hands stopped shaking almost immediately, and I was able to get my keys in the ignition and roll out of the dirt lot. But the relief faded almost as quickly as it came. As I turned onto the main road and took another swig from my drink, I felt more ashamed and more desperate than I had ever felt. I couldn’t believe that I was a person who drank and drove. I couldn’t believe that I was a person who got arrested for drinking and driving. I couldn’t believe I was doing it again hours after being locked up. I hated myself more in that moment than any other in my life. I wanted to die. There had been many other moments where I wished I would die, but this one seemed the most wanting. I finished that bottle of orange juice at a red light and looked down and through the empty plastic. It was there that I could finally see my truth…I couldn’t not drink.
Alcoholism and drug addiction rob us of so many things, but I think the most felonious is their pilfering of hope. You live in a state where all you can bear is to constantly try to rub out the consciousness of your own self-destruction. You feel relief when friends leave you, knowing it will keep you from the more repetitive pain each time you disappoint and hurt them. You are sure in your heart that you are worthless–that your life actually has no value, and that the world would surely be better off without you in it. At the same time as believing all these thoughts–you also somehow know how selfish they are. You understand that you are not the only victim of your disease, that you are not the only one who is hurting. Still, owning up to the pain you’ve caused others is unimaginable.
As I walked into the liquor store to grab a bottle that would help me manage through the rest of that impossible day, I thought about how long I would have to go on. I didn’t really know that people lived sober–I had no idea what that word even meant. I figured if you were a real alcoholic and you didn’t drink, then life must be pretty fucking miserable. I knew that alcohol was making my life unlivable–but at that point, I couldn’t get through even a few hours of the day without it. I thought getting arrested meant I was close to the end. The consequences of my drinking were getting worse, but I still wasn’t stopping. At that point I was sure of only a few things: I was a fuck-up. My life was fucked. I was anxious for it to end as soon as possible.
I hope I never forget that I felt this way. Although it’s been over ten years since that night I got arrested and over nine since I’ve been sober, the pain and agony of those thoughts can still feel fresh. I always make sure I listen to enough alcoholics and drug addicts that are newly sober or struggling to get clean, so that pain stays close to me. I never want to feel that way again. I never want to be hopeless.
I think a life without hope is like a life without water…it cannot be sustained. We have to be able to imagine that things can be good, that life can turn out well, that we can be truly happy. We have to be able to believe that we can achieve things, that our existence can be a positive one in the world, and in the lives of others. If we lose this gift of our humanity, our desire and will to live are undoubtedly threatened.
I feel so fortunate to have been placed (by the courts!) among other alcoholics who had felt the same way that I did. The first friend I ever had in recovery was a heroin addict. When she first tried to befriend me I thought, Umm, I’m nothing like you, I would never put a needle in my arm. Then I heard her speak at a meeting. I had to keep myself from choking up. It was my story. The details were different, but the feelings were exactly the same. I knew at that moment I had found my tribe.
If you ever hang around people in recovery you’ll hear something repeated that you might not understand, and will probably surprise you: A lot of us are super grateful to be alcoholics and drug addicts. It sounds strange, why would anyone want to be an alcoholic? It’s not that any of us are glad we’ve put our families through pain, and lost friendships, and squandered money and opportunities. Some of us have done things we will spend our whole lives trying to forgive ourselves for. Still, I am personally grateful to be an alcoholic for two main reasons. First, I know there is a solution to my problem. This is not a disease that cannot be beat. A characteristic that many addicts share is the affliction of terminal uniqueness–we are all sure we are so different from everyone else. While at first it felt like a blow to my ego to enter recovery and hear that I was not unique, that my story had surely already been told in the rooms–eventually it was a relief. I started to understand that if all of the people around me could stop drinking, and maintain long term sobriety, and I was just like them–then I probably could too. I didn’t need to wait to discover some revolutionary cure for my alcoholism–there was a tried and true remedy that was already working for thousands of people just like me.
The second reason I’m grateful to be an alcoholic is because it’s meant that I’ve known despair. To know that depth of pain and darkness, and to come out of it and live on the other side of it, makes it hard to not believe in miracles. To only know one way of life that is clouded with lies, sadness, and illness, and over time, see it replaced by an existence of truth, joy, and health–I can’t help but believe there is some type of power in the universe greater than myself. Getting sober has given me hope. Hope, has given me a life full of dreams that are ready to be realized if I am willing to work for them.
I didn’t think I’d ever have any other journey in my life that could compare to getting sober. Then, four months ago, I started marathon training. “Life-changing” does not really give this process it’s fair due. It is life-building, it is earth-shattering, it is transformative beyond belief. There are a lot things I see wrong with the world. There are several social justice crises that I feel determined to help turn around. At times everything can feel very heavy, and it’s not rare for my mind to visit a dark place. When this happens, I’m often reminded by friends and family that I need not carry the whole weight of the world on my shoulders. I know they are right–but here’s the thing: I think sometimes I feel in my heart like I should take on the whole weight of the world–because after getting sober and training for a marathon, it feels like I just might be able to hold it. Alright, settle down, I’m not claiming I’m Jesus. I just mean to emphasize how strong I feel. I once believed I would never be able to stop drinking for more than a day or two. I’ve now been sober for over 9 years. I once thought I’d never be able to run more than 6 or 7 miles. I ran 20 last weekend. Belief in ourselves and in each other is key. Transformation is real–and so is the power of hope.
So miles 23 and 24 go to my first big journey. I once thought that getting sober would be my most significant life experience. How exciting to know now that there are even greater ones to come. And how humbling to understand, that the only reason I have and will get to embark on these other journeys, is that I continue to stay on the path to recovery.
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header image: nadine shaabana