Grief Seeks Refuge in the Bottle
There’s a certain sort of introspection that occurs during the twilight morning hours. One that demands you consider new angles and perspectives and challenge yourself in a way that perhaps you’ve never dared to challenge yourself before. It commands vulnerability. Tonight feels especially vulnerable as we discuss perhaps the most dissuading and fearful element on our conscious: change.
Sometimes, it feels as if change is our only constant. I’m up this late because I’m packing for a move — just 11 months after I moved into this apartment. It feels as if I am leaving a waiting station; I love this apartment dearly but it never truly felt like home. I guess I wasn’t here enough for nesting to take effect. Change, in this case, is welcome (inconvenient, but welcome nonetheless). In all honesty, I’ve always been a fan of change. I’m a bit of a wayfarer at heart, treasuring the change to wander into something new.
Many times—in fact, I’d argue most times when it comes to me—change is a good thing. It’s an evolution of our conscience, or our circumstances, allowing enhanced growth opportunities. But sometimes, change is an unwelcome mistress — and how we cope with her when she arrives with caprice truly defines who we are.
I must have told this story here a thousand times, but now it takes on a new face. In 2017, I had a boyfriend, a best friend, a stable job, and a church home. All in Houston. In 2018, I was in Austin with none of those things. Somewhere in between and a little bit after, my entire world was falling to shambles around me.
I doubt I have to explain to any reader the depths at which being cheated on destroys your soul, your dignity, your identity — especially when you’re 22 and barely know who you’re supposed to be. But when it’s followed by the decimation of every ecosystem that you exist within, your soul hides in an abyss of numbness as it desperately tries to survive the attack.
When my soul finally crept out of the abyss to resume normalcy, the battlefield was worn and long was the war on which it was waged. What was left of me was not the same as what existed before. In that desolation, grief sought her refuge. She — we — found it in the bottle.
There’s a stage in alcoholism where you can stop. It’s where you’ve formed a crutch, a dependency, but you don’t yet malfunction without the substance. So you remove it from your life until you can retrain yourself to have a healthy relationship with it, which may take months or years, and you refuse to allow yourself to indulge at times or in situations where you otherwise would “need it” to thrive.
Late-stage alcoholism is a full-fledged, “I can’t wake up in the morning without a shot in my coffee” addiction. It is the inability to exist without a constant refreshment of a substance. I’m fortunate beyond belief that grief did not seek her refuge to this extreme. But she found escape at the bottom of a bottle, at social events, on particularly lonely nights, to mitigate stress and shame and fear and sadness. And I joined her there for years.
Upon discovering this a little over a week ago, I went cold turkey. Haven’t had a drop since. I was petrified by the idea that I could be dependent upon something that could cause so much harm to those I love. Moreso even than that, I recognize that my coping mechanisms are inhibiting me from a deeper and more dependent relationship with Christ. I’m going to do this for at least 2 months, maybe longer, because it’s important that I have a healthy relationship with alcohol or none at all. But as I’ve put the bottle down for the sake of emotional, mental, physical and spiritual health, grief has deigned to visit me and lodge a few complaints.
When my ex cheated on me, I lost so much in my life. I remember lying on the rug in my bedroom and shaking the floor of heaven with my sobs. I begged God to move heaven and earth to redeem me in the sight of my ex’s mother and uncle (2/3 of my bosses at work) and to exact righteousness through the church (my home church, where I had pulled strings to get him a job in leadership). After one particularly difficult Bible study (that I left midway through because my chest was going to combust from shame and rage and sorrow) I drove to the end of an abandoned street, parked my car, and roared so loudly at the God I swore didn’t give a shit about me, I lost my voice the next morning.
I hate revisiting this, but I think it’s important that I specifically revisit the traumas that led me down this path in the first place. The symptoms have pointed me to a larger problem and the band-aid I’ve used to fix it doesn’t work anymore.
I moved to Austin with nothing left in my hometown but my family. And I swore I would no longer allow my emotions to rule me. So when my mentor handed me a drink and told me it was the only thing in his life that silenced the screaming in his head, I clutched his promise like it was the jaws of life.
Alcohol may silence the voice in your head that picks you apart, but the guilt you exchange it for eats you alive. Nary a day did I wake up hungover and proud. I woke up ashamed, in hiding, like Adam and Eve in the garden upon realizing they are naked. I stopped picking up phone calls from my parents, I stopped seeking out new friends, and I hid with my grief and the only thing that would quiet her.
When I couldn’t see God come through for me, alcohol did. I rejected the shame. I didn’t want God, and I didn’t want anything to do with Him. He broke me when I trusted Him. His people hurt me, ripped my heart in two. I was sick. Skinnier than I’d been in years, and extinguished from emotional burnout, I battled with birth control-induced psychosis and sliced my arms over the bathroom sink with a razor every day. There wasn’t a night that passed by when I didn’t plan one more piece in the puzzle of my suicide. I didn’t want to be here anymore, and the pain I felt on the inside was so acute, so profound, that I didn’t know if anything but death could render me free. My body was sick, but my soul was in crisis.
True to form, God’s miracle came on the day of my planned suicide. But I still hadn’t grasped holistic mental health, and I continued to grieve in the bottle. My intense career didn’t help. As I helped build a marketing agency from the ground up, I was called upon for the traditional roles of a co-founder that are difficult for anyone to manage, let alone a 23-year old. What was expected of me was a happy face, and alcohol helped me to get there. What was expected of me was 24/7 extroversion, a mode I couldn’t get in after a long day without a few shots. I knew the results I had to deliver and I was willing to do anything I had to do — and take anything I had to take — to make those results happen. Failure was a worse death than death itself.
Alcohol remained a constant even as I healed. I parlayed my dependence into my desire to be liked when I started graduate school. Invited to constant parties, I drank like an 18 year old rushing for a fraternity… and so did those around me. We were stressed and tired, working all day and then learning even more at night. Most of us had demanding jobs that expected us to continue working like nothing happened — though 20+ hours of our weeks were now being dedicated to academic enhancement. We drank to forget. We drank to cope. We drank to forget some more. We bonded over the bottle and the suffering and the pathway to greatness, and we became a motley crew that no one could understand but our own.
And I drank with the best of ’em, putting the men to shame, because drunk Christina (or as my classmates affectionately dubbed me, ‘xtina’) was loveable and fun and not in her head, unbothered and without worry. I liked who I was with a drink in my hand. I didn’t want to face who I was when no one else was looking: sad, broken, tired, overwhelmed, and weak. Dependent? Not me. Never me. Not to anyone or anything that can let me down. Humans and God can let me down. You know who can’t?
My friend Patron.
Patron, and all of his friends, finally did let me down though—when I realized that they had painted a beautiful mask on my face that in no way reflected who I was. I looked in the mirror at that mask and knew, underneath it all, that I hadn’t changed a bit.
While I had worked through the more complex grief that I was once faced with (as in, the breakup I had at 22 and the consecutive trauma that pushed me to Austin no longer lives rent-free in my brain), beneath the mask still showed the same patterns in my life: obsessive-compulsive tendencies, burnout, the desperate need to achieve and be loved, and an identity that was founded in what others said about me.
I removed alcohol from my life because I needed a change. And so far, that change has been really easy and good and free — like Sunday morning. I was one of the lucky ones. Addiction had yet to sink in its teeth. God, I pray it never does.
Change is a good thing. It liberates us. It frees us. It forces us to ignite new patterns and pathways and devise better solutions to old and new problems alike. It makes us grow. Fearing change, or being inflexible when it strikes, manifests an illusion of control that is certifiably false. There is nothing in this life that we can control but our own thoughts and actions. Everything else, whether it be serendipitous or cruel, can be left to fate or Jesus or coincidence or the fall of humanity or spiritual intervention (holy or otherwise). Where we begin our struggle is at the point we truly believe that we can control these external factors. We can’t.
Maybe today is the first time I’ve actually admitted that to myself. Maybe it took being free of the substance that numbs me to realize that true freedom lies in acceptance, not in escapism. Maybe it’s a good thing that I’m not in control. Maybe I’d screw it all up if I was.
And maybe, just maybe, grief was meant to be faced. To be embraced, to be expressed through lamentations, to be felt thoroughly and fully and without excuse. And then, to be released, having been fully acknowledged, into the Hands of the Good Father.
Maybe I don’t have to be perfect. Sleeping at Last says it perfectly in Atlas: Three: “It’s so exhausting on this silver screen where I play the role of anyone but me.”
I am broken. We all are. But it’s the wildest thing… admitting that I’m broken is the most whole I’ve ever felt.
It’s a little past 4am, which means it took over an hour for me to write this post. Usually, I am a speed demon, but these thoughts were a bit more challenging to come by. Perhaps this level of depth isn’t quite as natural to me as it used to be.
In full transparency, I’m asking God for something right now. I’m asking Him all day every day. I’m knocking at the door. I’m seeking. He promises that I shall find. I’m banking on His mercy and goodness and grace and redemption and the miracles that He’s been known to work to bring me a good and perfect gift. And I am scared to death, because it’s a change of pace for me — asking for something that is completely out of my control. There is nothing in the world I can do to make this happen for me. Only Jesus.
So instead of the bottle and my feelings and my genius and my inherent ability to fix most things and f*ck up others, I’m turning to God and asking Him to do what only He can do.
How’s that for a change of pace? From one control freak to another… July is the month that we let things go and thank God we’re not in charge. Here we go!