Progress Not Perfection
Today I celebrate six years of sobriety.
That’s 2,192 days. I know — I can’t believe it myself. In fact, my sponsor in my alcohol recovery program likes to say it only took 20 years to get six years of continuous sobriety. She’s not wrong. Since 2001 I have had fits and starts in my efforts to give up drinking alcohol. I had no trouble quitting, it was just that staying sober was the hard part.
If I am truly honest with myself, which I am learning to be, I was an alcoholic from a very young age. My mother found a paper I wrote in fourth grade that answered the question, “I want to be an adult so I can…” My answer was “drink.” It looked like those adults I knew were having so much fun!
Let’s just say, the sentiment didn’t go away. I first got drunk at my cousin LeAnne’s wedding, at the main hall of Chico’s Silver Dollar Fairgrounds. My cousin George and I figured out that if we went to the bar and said our parents wanted another vodka and 7-Up, they’d give it to us. We had a blast.
Weddings were tough for me. When I was 14, at my own sister’s wedding reception — for which I was a bridesmaid — I had access to all the champagne I could want, so George and I again indulged, er over-indulged. I had my first blackout that night and my first morning after shameful phone call to a friend who was at the wedding to ask what embarrassing thing I did. I guess I fared better than George, who rumor had it ended up in a swimming pool in his Paul McCartney tuxedo and tennis shoes getup on. I guess it could have been worse.
That was also the day I discovered “hair of the dog,” when we attended the day-after brunch at La Fonda’s and I was introduced to bottomless champagne. Those brunches became my best friends.
I was aided in those early years by three hard-partying older siblings, who thought nothing of letting their baby sister drink. After all, it was the late ‘70s, I had just been introduced to punk rock, and I was “mature for my age.” I think that meant smart.
In high school, besides my friend Howard and cousin George, I couldn’t find any drinking buddies. Until of all things a Junior State convention in San Francisco introduced me to some folks who would become lifelong friends. Jill, Chris, Ethan, Sean, Pat, Karen, Dodie, Phil, Gretchen, Jim, Susan and assorted other outcasts blended together like a perfect margarita. We were the smart kids, the teachers’ pets who could do nothing wrong. We engaged in journalism, student government, drama, sports, SAT prep and intense weekend parties. We had themes to our parties, like the Dead Kennedys and Preppy afternoon.
Meanwhile, my siblings helped too. By then my brother and oldest sister were living in San Francisco, and my mom actually allowed me to drive my Toyota Corolla down to visit them, where we would attend concerts, smoke weird things I didn’t like, and drink a lot of beer. I saw Springsteen at Winterland in ‘78, The Clash at the Old Waldorf in ’79, and The Police and The Pretenders at the Cow Palace in ’80, I think. In fact, I took off school days to see Springsteen every time he rolled into town. I spent my 17th birthday with my brother and oldest sister sitting at the Marina Green in SF, drinking two bottles of champagne before we went to Sam Wo’s for dinner — bring your own beer.
Surprisingly, I did well enough in school to get a scholarship to Berkeley. Jill had gone to Cornell the year before. Chris was greasing my way at Cal, while Dodie received scholarships to Pepperdine. Gretchen went to Pomona, and George was just across the Bay at San Francisco State. Ethan was a scholar at UC Davis, while Sean followed his dream to UC San Diego.
My drinking continued in college, and I realized I didn’t have any interest in going to parties or events unless there was going to be booze there. However, despite that — it was normal in college, right? — I became an RA in the dorms and later a Hall Coordinator. We learned how to be alcohol counselors. Ha! I also became an editor of The Daily Californian, the best damn college newspaper in the country. In those days it was a true daily, separate from the university, and we ran it like Lou Grant’s newsroom except with a lot of smoking and day drinking.
In my senior year I found a group of friends — fellow RAs — who liked to party. There was one guy in particular who was a sort of leader of the pack. Tony liked to party like I did, yet he was able to turn on the off switch when necessary. He got A’s in classes I struggled in, just by cramming with a few beers the night before a final. I liked him. And he liked me.
Tony and I moved in together soon after our college graduations, and I always said life would be a party with him. It was. He was a great Italian cook who loved wine tasting, and there were several memorable occasions when we would head to the Napa Valley and hit more than 10 wineries in one day. I think our record was 16.
We were married in 1988, moved to El Sobrante in 1990, and our first child arrived in 1992. Ironically, I had no trouble giving up booze during my pregnancy, but as soon as she arrived, I started up where I left off — which probably explains why her little brother arrived 21 months later. They were both perfect. Like his sister’s pregnancy, I had no trouble abstaining from alcohol. My husband thought we were done, but an alcohol-infused holiday season in 1996 brought us our little surprise, baby “Oops” as we lovingly called him. I was more lax during that pregnancy, allowing myself a glass of red wine every week or so after my nausea subsided. He, too, was perfect.
That coincided with my daughter Frannie starting kindergarten, and I met two women who would become my best friends: Rosetta, like Tony, was Italian, so we bonded immediately. Liz and her then-husband Eric went to Cal, and Eric was even a resident in one of Tony’s dorms.
Our kids grew up like cousins, even when Liz and Eric moved to Moraga and Tony and I moved to Walnut Creek. And we had some very memorable parties that all revolved around wine.
Something happened to me when I moved to Walnut Creek. I suddenly became supercharged, trying to hold down freelance, newspaper and magazine jobs while becoming very involved in my kids’ school and activities. It’s just what people do in the suburbs, right? Luckily, our neighborhood had a nickname, “The Dorm,” mainly because at any time of day or night you could find someone who would open a bottle of wine for you. Parents brought Bloody Mary’s and margaritas to soccer practices, and our swim team parties were, well, swimming with booze. I was PTA president twice, and both times embarrassed myself at our annual fundraisers, once throwing up in an indoor plant at a local golf course’s reception hall. Tony was always there to rescue me and drive me home.
After one get together with a few other families, I vaguely remember my youngest, Mick, asking, “Is Mommy going to sleep in the car again?” That was humiliating. So was, 10 years later, driving to carpool at the local high school and asking him to drive home because I had been drinking tequila since 9 a.m. that day. I think of the times I drove impaired and was not pulled over; someone upstairs was looking out for me.
And remember my partying siblings? To my surprise, one by one, all three of them decided to sober up. Each of them now have more than 25 years of sobriety. They knew I was still sick, but not ready to stop.
I tried. I went to my first recovery meeting in 2001, after I had drank a bottle of wine at a swim team dinner then yelled at my two older kids for not swimming fast enough in a championship swim meet. They were 8 and 6 at the time.
Two days later I walked into a noon meeting at St. Matthew’s church and an old guy smiled at me and said, “Welcome! We saved a chair for you!” I looked around. Did my sister call and tell them I was coming? But no, I learned later he was what they called a “greeter.” I was one of only two women at the meeting. Afterward, the other woman walked me out to my car and asked me what my story was. I told her about yelling at my kids after the swim meet. “You’re in the right place,” she said. I didn’t drink at all that week and at the next week’s meeting I got up the courage to ask her to be my sponsor — I knew all the lingo from my sisters. She said yes, and has stuck by me for 20 years of ups and downs.
I didn’t stay sober that time, which started what I like to call my revolving door to sobriety. But that’s a story for another day.
But now, the fact is, I haven’t wanted to drink alcohol for six years. I am grateful every day for that miracle. And while I was first doing it for my kids, for Tony and even my mom and siblings, I am now on this journey for myself, because for the first time in my life I realize I am worth something. I am a hero to myself.
And I have so much more to learn! As my old friend Brooke used to say, “I hope you have a long recovery.” I hope I do, too.