Through the years my friends and colleagues have rarely known the date of my birthday. It was easier to hide it than to deal with anyone acknowledging it. The cynicism in my head screamed that being celebrated for just being was dumb. The attention would make my stomach turn and my hands shake. I’d get nervous and flooded with shame if anyone brought it up, or in the worst situation, sang Happy Birthday which made me want to vomit.
You are told in recovery that you’ll experience a lot of firsts. I’m probably going to write that sentence a thousand more times over the next few years. Thirty-four would be my first sober birthday. It was another reminder that these firsts aren’t cathartic moments or explosive situations. They are just another day, another moment, with new experiences. Experiences that I’d get through without drinking.
Two years ago I planned a trip for my birthday. Four of us took a couples trip to a ski town and got private lessons. For the first time in over a decade I had the courage, happiness and friendships to say to myself it was okay to celebrate me.
When we boarded the plane I was already two vodkas in from the restaurant we stopped at before. As we took off I was another two down. Stepping off the plane just a couple hours later I was pretty tipsy.
We went out to dinner that night, and I glowed behind my giant 20oz glass of margarita with a floater while everyone else drank 12oz regulars. I drank vodka on ice back at the rental while everyone else sipped on a single cup of wine. The next day I opted out of skiing class at noon to go drink at the bar while everyone else went back up the mountain to finish the private lesson. This continued.
Our plane home was delayed because of a storm so I bought bottles of beer to share while we played cards waiting to go home. I ended up drinking them myself just to stop the hangover from starting. The drinks on the plane couldn’t come fast enough. By the time we were in the car to drive home I sat quietly in the passenger seat blitzed, in the middle of a hangover, drunk and exhausted.
There’s a selfie of us getting off the plane. I’m puffy and red faced, my eyes glossy, and half a smile forced across my face. I felt terrible and wanted to be at home with a bottle of vodka so I could drink alone. So I could drink as much as I wanted to without being judged. The other three people in the photograph look young, beautiful and refreshed after a weekend of fun, with a real reason to smile.
I arrived in Joshua Tree Park first, a whole day ahead of everyone else. The plan this year is for a group of friends to come out and hike through the desert during the day and sit by the campfire and stargaze at night. It will be the biggest group of friends I’ve been around since getting sober, and it will be the first time there is alcohol readily accessible.
This morning I had a sunrise run through the dirt roads of Joshua Tree park in 39 degree weather. Black-tailed Jackrabbits ran along side me through the sandy paths leaving their dotted trails across my own. The sky turned from light blues to fiery reds as the sun snuck over the rocky horizon. The snow topped mountains in the background accented the tall rock formations that framed the empty, cold desert before the sun could bring it to life. My arms and fingers burned cold.
Two years ago I was pouring sweat putting on my snow boots. So out of shape I could barely lift my ski poles. My underclothes were drenched after two hours of baby slopes. This morning I ran two ten minute miles and did a full body workout afterwards. The stark difference in what three months of sobriety has provided should be every reason I never pick up a drink again.
After my run I had a call with my therapist. We discussed how to be safe while friends would inevitably drink around me. Her giving me the advice she had since the first days of sobriety: bookends. This call with her today before the party was the first, and a promise to text her tomorrow morning when I woke up, sober, was the second. That message will be my accountability measure. And I’ll have to think about it every time I see a beer and consider “just one drink”.
The Morning After
I didn’t end up publishing the post above on my birthday. Exhaustion and cynicism prevented me from having the confidence to click “Publish…” It’s now a few days after and the events that unfolded have left me dumbfounded.
My friends didn’t drink. Even after profusely and awkwardly telling them to go pick up a well deserved case of beer after an afternoon hike. They didn’t even argue with me, they just said they’d get soda. Wanting alcohol was in my head, a night without drinking was my fear. Not theirs.
We had a great time. We laughed until we cried. I laughed so hard I had to stop playing a game at one point because I didn’t think I could handle it anymore. We were fine without alcohol. It wasn’t weird, it wasn’t dull, there weren’t any long uncomfortable silences. Everything I had dreaded about hanging out with people sober was wrong. And I got to wake up the next morning knowing I hadn’t made an ass of myself, and knowing I didn’t have to pull anyone aside to apologize.
I even spent the morning drinking coffee and chatting, taking my time getting ready to leave. As opposed to my usual of waking up at 6am and rushing home so I could spend the rest of the day drinking away the hangover, curtains drawn, out of sight. The sense of urgency to get to the next glass of vodka was gone as we curled our hands around our coffee cups, still in our pajamas, not worrying about the time.
Most importantly, the voices in my head were all but whispers. Every time someone asked me a question doubt wondered what their motive was, but I was able to pause and push it down and have faith that there was nothing nefarious about the conversation. Every time I told a story doubt would tell me how boring I was and to stop talking, but I talked over it and was confident in what I had to say. Every time I heard laughter doubt told me they were talking about me while I wasn’t there, but logic scoffed at how insane that would be.
Leaving was hard. It’s always been easy, I’ve always had a destination more important: a bottle. I didn’t want to say goodbye this time though. Their gesture of not drinking, which may have been simple for them, was so grand to me. Driving back by myself listening to The Recovering on Audible, I couldn’t help thinking over and over again how sane this all felt, and how level it was compared to the drunken nights I’d spent with them all the years before. And the immense amount of love I had in my heart for them and being comfortable with it because it just was.
This normalcy is still an uncomfortable skin to wear. I question things I wouldn’t regularly do, feelings I wouldn’t feel, things I wouldn’t say, especially not drunk. But the more sober I get, the farther away that judgmental and cynical voice gets, and the stronger my confidence gets to do what feels right.
Here’s to making year 35 a dry one. That seems so huge typing out…a whole year…I still don’t have faith I’ll make it. But I know I’m not alone now. I’ve just got to keep one thing in mind: one day at a time.