Loneliness, Sobriety, and My Conscious Life

There is something I knew I would struggle with but I have never discussed in depth with anyone when it comes to sobriety, and that is loneliness.

One of my clearest early memories is of an afternoon when I was three. I lay on my bed on a yellow blanket, and I watched the sun track across my hand as it moved through the sky. I don't think I had ever consciously noticed that the sun moved before. There was something in that interplay between my body and the moving sun that described my separateness from the world, the finiteness of my body and my mind apart from all other things.

I became conscious, and since then my life has always had loneliness in it, but don't mistake this as a sad thing. It has its own kind of comfort, an spiritual layer of personal space that this introvert embraces. It's a sacred and prayerful room housed within me. This internal otherness, though, didn't necessarily help me make friends and influence people while I tried to navigate my childhood.

When I was a teenager, I found that drinking made socializing much simpler. After the first drink, my lack of ease relaxed, and I would start to laugh, people's stories were more interesting, and this mind that never stopped moving would slow down. Sometimes it would go dark and forget altogether.

In my thirties, I would wake up the next morning, privately investigate myself for new bruises from chairs and stairs and who knows what, and I would know that none of it meant anything, not the laughter, not the ease, none of it. It was now merely a holiday away from the life it had left me.

The days became a pattern of recovery from the last drunk and anticipation of the next, and then I would get drunk again, because things might be how I liked them this time, if only for a while. They could be lighter, and, when the drinking went right, they could be simply forgotten.

This is what kept me from quitting years earlier. It was exactly these little drunken pockets of lightness when I and the people with whom I drank meshed into this singular body of sorts, a chosen family of friends. Whether I remembered our conversations or not — I didn't — I remembered sitting shoulder to shoulder with people who never turned me away.

As much as I felt out of control, I was a functional alcoholic, by which I mean that I managed my alcoholism like a job, and I was good at it for a long time. It was easy for me to excuse all of it. My illness was well-camouflaged and hard to spot from the outside. I was never drunk at work, I never kept alcohol in the house, and I always left where I was drinking before I blacked out.

No one knew that I had been psychologically reduced to a daily decision between drinking and killing myself. I don't think there was a truly acknowledged alcoholic among us, so there was no one to tell. I hadn't even truly owned up to it myself yet, and I certainly wasn't going make the admission to my husband. I worked hardest to lie to him.

And then, one night in mid-August 2010, I experienced a sudden spark, a revelation, and I didn't want to die anymore, not by my own hand and not by the bottle, either. I downed the last of my drink and walked away without a word.

It is a tough thing to choose to cut yourself out of most of the last ten years of your social life with little or no explanation, but I did it. I had to. I can't explain what made me do it in the end. I just knew. I believed.

I think I hung onto that scene for so long because I didn't want to look at the fact that I was the same individual with or without it. I used people as decorations, as a distraction. I hate to acknowledge this now, but it's what I did to survive those last years, or at least I felt I had to do it. I constructed a scenario in which I could keep my head down in my addiction without having to look up.

There is a difference between the loneliness I expect and, to a certain extent, venerate, the one which is a symptom of each of us being bound within our own isolating animal conditions, the one I found at three and carried on with me, but this other loneliness, the kind born of fraternal and familial connections broken, was much harder. The first loneliness I knew and accepted, but the second one frightened me then and it still does now some days. I had been an addict during my entire adult life, and I had no faith in my ability to make connections with people without the common fealty grown through liquor.

During those first months of sobriety, I felt lonely and old, but I got to know myself again, and when I got a clear look at myself sober, I wasn't so bad. I had spent so long running away from myself in every direction that I didn't know what I looked like. I had braced myself for having to dig into the worst of my ugliness, but it turned out that I had a friendly face in the mirror. It was the last thing I thought I was going to figure out. While I did and still do have some ugliness to work through, I realized that I was going to be largely okay, maybe a little bored while I searched for new hobbies, but okay.

The fear of loneliness that had been part of my set of excuses to keep myself glued to pub benches for twenty years was unfounded. It wasn't the loneliness, it was me that I feared, and I wasn't nearly as monstrous as I had presumed.

Over a year later, I was dancing alone in my kitchen on a Friday night, trying to figure out what people did with themselves when they weren't gulping down a seventh pint of Guinness — it can take a while to relearn 20-year long habits — and I realized that the loneliness I was feeling was not at all comparable to the heavy swell of isolation I felt when a blackout started to set in. Not even I could be there for myself in that kind of moment.

Now sober, I had woken up, and I realized that I wanted to be present with myself in that moment for the first time in my conscious life.