November 28, 1984 was clear and cold. I woke up hungover and did not go to class. Again.
It was the Wednesday after Thanksgiving and I was a student at the University of Maine at Farmington. I was in my second year, on academic probation, and failing every class I was enrolled in at that time. I just couldn't seem to get out of my own way. I'd swear that tomorrow I would go to class, all of my classes even, but then I'd oversleep, wake up hungover again, and never get around to it. Once I missed the first one, well, that kind of made it silly to go to the second one, maybe I'd hit the ones after lunch, but by then I was already drinking again and going to class just didn't seem so important. I was 19 years old.
Friends had been commenting that semester about how much I was drinking. I mean friends I drank with. That seemed pretty odd. And high and fucking mighty, too. I found new friends. I kept running out of money, too. I had worked that past summer scooping ice cream in a beach town in Massachusetts and managed to save enough to come to school with a budgeted amount of spending money for each week, plus some for spring semester, plus I had a work study job. It paid shit and was boring, but I could go slightly fucked up and nobody seemed to mind, so long as I got my work done. But I kept running out of cash. My bank account was overdrawn, I couldn't seem to sell enough weed to break even there, so I had to keep shoveling money toward the local dealer. Alcohol seemed to make my money disappear, and I couldn't figure out how it was happening. I'd but a case of beer and a pint, plus some weed, oh, and sometimes some cheap speed tablets to crush up and snort through a straw, I'd find some people to party with, we'd make a midnight run to the 7-11 for pizza burritos and Hagen Daas ice cream, then it was morning, I felt like shit and I missed class again. I took out a loan, I think, maybe two. That helped for a while.
I developed a habit that semester of opening one last beer before bed. I'd take a couple sips and leave it on the nightstand. By morning it would be warm and flat, but I'd drink it anyway just so I could stand up and walk across the hall to the bathroom. Of course, after a beer for breakfast, classes did dip significantly on the priority list. Again.
I had a couple of friends who lived down the hall from me who were psychology majors or rehab majors or something like that. I drank with them sometimes. I liked them a lot. Kate was the heavier drinker - her roommate seemed to hold back and be aloof. I didn't trust her much. Kate was cool though. I think Bridget was the rehab major. She asked if she could interview me for a class, I said sure, what the hell. She asked if I could please not be drunk during the interview. I thought that was an odd request, but said ok. I wasn't drunk during the interview, but I did have my first two beers of the evening during it. I think she wrote that down. When she was done with her report, she asked if I wanted to see it. Sure, I said, why not? She had carefully omitted my name, but documented my situation pretty accurately. She concluded that I was so wrapped up in my alcoholism and drug addiction that I was headed for disaster if I did not do something significant soon.
"Well, I guess I am a statistic" was my response. I really didn't know what to say. I didn't think my behavior was so bad as to brand me an alcoholic, but I guess she had to do the right things to get a good grade on the paper. Whatever. Let's have a beer. Kate went to the store with me to buy. Kate was 21 and could buy alcohol.
Sometime that semester, someone put a flyer under my door from AA. Something about 20 questions to determine if I might be an alcoholic. But whoever had left it had circled a bunch of answers already, many of which I simply disagreed. I could stop any time. I just liked alcohol. I didn't think it was screwing up my life. Fucking people were like Jehovah's Witnesses for crying out loud, leaving pamphlets and shit. Too weird.
So Thanksgiving came and went, I came back from vacation determined to buckle down and pull myself out of the abyss that had become my academic standing, but I just couldn't seem to do it. Drunk again. Hungover again. Showing up to practicum reeking of alcohol and pot, resin and burns on my fingertips. A chronic post-nasal drip from whatever that crap was I snorted, and a suspicious burn on the inside of my nostril from torching a roach and holding it to my nose to inhale the smoke. Got too close and the now-heated surgical clamps that served as my roach clip, touched the tender flesh and burned a nice blister there before I could react and pull it away. I looked a wreck, I am sure. And smelled it as well.
Wednesday dawned like any other day. It was awful. I was hungover. The freedom I had so looked forward to in August had come around and bit me in the ass. I had no idea how to put the brakes on. Somehow, and for what reason it happened that day, Kate approached me about maybe doing something about my drinking. I agreed that it did seem to be out of hand and conceded that perhaps I might need some help dealing with it. She said she knew some people who knew how to do that, that I didn't have to sign anything, I didn't have to pay anything, I just had to come with her that night after supper. It would help if I didn't drink today, she said. It will make more sense that way. Just for today, that's not a big thing, right? You can do that, right? Sure, I said. I can do that.
I have no memory of the rest of that day. I don't know if I went to class or if I went to supper. Kate showed up at just before 7 p.m. and we walked together across the street from the dorm, her actually leading me by the hand, up the steps and into a little room with comfortable couches and chairs and smiling, happy-seeming people. Things were already underway and somebody was reading something. There was something from a book, and then somebody read the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Step one said: "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable." I remember hearing that. I remember thinking that I wasn't sure if I was powerless over alcohol, that sounded kind of lame and weak, but I knew for certain that my life was unmanageable. I remember thinking that maybe if I did whatever it is that these people said I should do for six months or so, I might be able to get things straightened back out so I could get back to life and drink in a way that didn't wreck things so much.
They went around the room for introductions. When they got to me, I said "I'm Dawn and I'm an alcoholic." Do not be mistaken here. It was not an epiphany. It was not a moment of truth. I did not believe it for a moment. But it looked like if I wanted to stay with this crowd I had to say what they said, so I did. Lying was such an integral part of my world back then, I never flinched when I said I was an alcoholic. Hell, if they'd have asked me to say I was the queen of England, I'd have sworn it solemnly on a stack of whatever they were offering.
That night I went to bed sober for the first time in months. It was strange. The room did not spin as it usually did. I did not have to sleep with one hand on the wall and one foot out of bed on the floor to stop the bed from swirling. My room was not at the bottom of the world's longest drinking straw. The next day I woke up and didn't feel awful. It was strange, but there it was. I remembered what those people had said the night before, and I prayed to whatever god I imagined might listen to keep me away from a drink for that day.
It worked. I didn't drink that day. I don't know if I went to class or not. Perhaps. But I know that I got through the day without drinking. That night, I prayed again, thanking that god for keeping me sober that day. I got into bed and marveled at what I had done. The next day was Friday. That's a tough day for a drunk two days away from a drink, living in a college dorm.
What do we do? I asked Kate. I wanna go to a party. I want to get drunk. It's what we do. I don't remember the conversation, but we changed our clothes and went to a meeting. We drove all the way to Skowhegan for a meeting. I complained that it seemed an awfully long way to drive in November. If there was a kegger there, would you drive? Kate asked. Heh. If there was a kegger there, we'd have already drunk it dry, I said. Exactly. We drove on in the dark.
I went to a meeting that night, and for many nights after that. I still flunked all my classes except P.E. I was academically dismissed from college. Told to take a year off, get my shit together and then maybe I could reapply and see if I had settled down enough to be a student. I got an apartment with a friend, went to meetings, drank a lot of coffee, worked a bunch of part-time jobs and eventually moved back in with my aunt in Massachusetts. I couldn't manage money and work and life well enough yet to manage on my own.
Back in Mass., I went to a lot of meetings. I met a bunch of people and I began to get active. I made coffee for a couple of groups, I set up and took down the meetings, I became very familiar with folding chairs. I got a factory job that I hated but it paid off those loans I took out that last year of school. I got a series of really shitty cars and beat them to death. I dated (a generous term for my behavior in the 1980s) a series of men, but always stayed sober.
A year or more went by and I went back to school. I went to meetings, I stayed sober, I came out as a lesbian, became politically active, stopped going to meetings, left school and came back several times, finally getting a degree in general studies (general trivia). I have tons of credits in psychology, social and political sciences, and writing. I am overqualified for nearly every job that I am not under qualified for. Meh. Whatever. Somehow, I still did not drink.
Years went by. Girlfriends and careers came and went. A few years ago, I realized that I was not happy. I came back to meetings, at first just to make friends in a new town and to meet a queer community. But I was unhappy. I reached out and got a sponsor in AA. Bill is a great guy, despite being flighty as hell. He helped me do the steps as they are laid out in what we call the Big Book, simply a book called Alcoholics Anonymous. There are steps, 12 of them, and they are in order for a reason, Bill told me. We took each one as it was written, and I began to do some journaling. I set my alarm and got up early to write in my journal. I wrote before I had coffee, so my guard was down. Once I am awake, the walls of cleverness, sarcasm and self-depreciation take over and what you get is half bullshit on a good day. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. I started over at the beginning, and I wrote about how I was powerless over alcohol and how my life was unmanageable. I wrote about step two and how I came to believe that there was a power greater than myself who could restore me to sanity. I wrote and wrote about step three, in which I turned my will and my life over to god as I understand him. And in step four, I took a serious look at myself and my actions. I took a fearless and searching moral inventory of my soul. In step five, I sat with Bill and we talked about my inventory, and I admitted to god, myself and to another human being the exact nature of my wrongs. It was a kind of purging and cleansing unlike anything I had ever experienced in a confessional booth.
I learned that all that crap I did all those years ago might have been immoral, but it got me through. I learned survival skills that nobody should ever have to learn. I learned how to cheat and how to lie and how to steal and how to manipulate people through bullying and sucking up and sleeping with them if that's what needed doing. I learned to cover up my own pain with alcohol. I learned to sleep with people in order to feel attractive. I learned to be a doormat so that people would like me. I learned to use people to meet my own needs, and I learned how to get by with none of the healthy skills other people seemed to get in first grade. I must have been out that day and missed the handout. I always felt like an outsider looking in.
I did not justify my behavior because of my lack of skills, my addiction to alcohol and drugs, or my youth. I am accountable for all that shit I did. But I don't need to flog myself like a member of Opus Dei or wear a hair shirt for the rest of my days. What is important now is that I do what I can to make it right. That brought me to steps six and seven, where I first became willing to have god remove all these defects of character, and then humbly asked him to remove my shortcomings. Keep in mind that these defects of character are the exact things that I had been using as coping mechanisms for decades. Instead of manipulating people, I had to learn how to be honest, how to communicate and how to interact. It was excruciating to learn that stuff in my 40s. Yes, in my 40s. I felt like I was going through junior high at the same time I was having night sweats and mood swings. It was brutal. It still is. I still am learning that stuff.
After I did six and seven, I had to do something about making things right for those whom I had hurt through the years. Step eight says that we make a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all. That was tough. There were a lot of people through the years that I had screwed over and whom I thought truly deserved a good screwin' over. In fact, they might still need some more abuse, now that I think about it. Too bad, my sponsor said. This was about my behavior and my part in whatever conflict was there, not theirs. Where was I an ass? Well, let's get ready to make apologies and do what we can to make it right. Step nine says that we make amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. So I set about finding the people I had wronged and doing what I could to make amends. Some were easy to find, others difficult. It is not a thing that can be done in a weekend. It is not a thing that can be done in a month. It is a thing that will take me as long as it takes. I imagine I will be running into people for the rest of my life to whom I need to make amends. And with any luck, I'll be able to do that.
Step ten has me continue to take a personal inventory and when I am wrong, admit it. I try to do that today. Sometimes it takes me a little while before I can get past my own anger (like the Lowe's guy) to suck it up and apologise. Sometimes I can do it right away. It is an ongoing process.
Step eleven says "Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with god as we understood him, praying only for the knowledge of his will and the power to carry it out." I struggle with this one every day. I try to meditate, but I am not really good at it. I don't sit still well. I try though, and I do the St. Francis prayer often. It's not perfect, but it is progress.
Step 12 says grand and mighty things: "Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs." It is a tall order. Not all alcoholics want to hear how great life can be after all this incredibly emotional and spiritual heavy lifting. So generally what I do is I talk to people who ask about it. I talk to people who seem willing to listen. I talk to people who want to know. Going out and recruiting members is for Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses, not AA. As a lesbian, I have to be doubly careful to whom I try to carry the message. The last thing I want to do is scare some woman away who mistakes my concern for an inappropriate advance. It is a rare thing these days that I approach someone and say "hey, I know what it's like being where you are. Here's how I got to be where I am now." I figure the best thing I can do most days is try to live as an example of good effort at a life well-lived. I don't always hit the mark, but I give it an honest and heartfelt try.
24 years ago tonight, I sat shaking in my first meeting, 19 years old, overwhelmed by life and the shit that swirled around me, and pretty sure doom was coming. Tonight I am at my kitchen table, flanked by my aunt who loves me and my partner L who also loves me. We live in a little rented cottage and we have a big cat and a little dog. I am self-employed and we seem to do ok most days. Life is not all roses, not by a long shot, but I don't have to do what I used to do just to survive. I don't have to hustle and con and manipulate and lie to get my needs met today. I live life on life's terms, and I am at peace with my god and my soul, and for that, for all of what I have written and for all that I have today, I am grateful.