an excerpt from Nadia Bolz-Weber's Pastrix
The Sunday after New Year's Day 1992, I was six days sober and sitting in a dingy, generic room filled with cigarette smoke and sober women—suburban housewives, haggard cocktail waitresses, a couple of grandmas, and a lawyer—on the second floor of York Street. York Street is an old Victorian house that is being used as a center for alcoholism recovery meetings in Denver. The grandeur of the home had faded after over twenty years of continually being used as a meeting space for sober drunks. The grand wraparound porch, which long ago hosted corseted Victorian ladies and cummerbunded gentlemen, was now dotted with half-full butt cans, homeless men, and attorneys briskly sliding into their Audis to avoid being seen at a recovery center by colleagues or clients who may be driving on actual York Street.
You used to be able to smoke at York Street, but only on the second floor, and smoking is helpful when you are shaky from not drinking and dubious about the prospect of recovery in the first place. I wasn't at all sure this thing was going to work for me or that I belonged at York Street or that any of these women had ever gone through what I was going through. But I did know that I didn't like any of them.
As we sat in a circle on the second floor, they talked about God, blah blah blah, and surrender, blah blah blah, and I didn't buy it. My skin felt like the rough side of Velcro, and every sound was tearing away at my nerves. My right foot was furiously bouncing my leg up and down like it was its job. I thought of my sober friend Nora, who once said that if she weren't an alcoholic she'd be drunk every day. I smiled at how much that made sense. What I really wanted was a couple shots of vodka, but what I had was six days of sobriety and what now seemed like a nervous disorder.
While the lawyer spoke, my mind wandered to a week before, when on Christmas Day I had started drinking at ten a.m. and woke up twenty-four hours later in the bed of a line cook from the restaurant where I worked—whom I had no memory of either hanging out with or ever being attracted to. But the thing that horrified me was not that I had drank so much that I had ended up in a strange house with little memory of the evening before. I had engaged in the consistently stupid for quite a while at that point: getting tattooed in a junkie's living room, snorting cocaine in the bathroom of Nell's in New York, crashing my motorcycle on a patch of ice (not being sober enough to consider that maybe winter isn't motorcycle season).
Instead, what was horrifying that Christmas Day was that none of it horrified me.
If my poor mother had known even a small piece of it, she would have never recovered, but I had acted as if it was all just a part of my starring role in Andrew Lloyd Webber's version of Nadia, and wasn't I fabulous? I carried a bravado about my drinking like I was a hero of debauchery. But on that Christmas Day, it felt like shit. I had a vague realization that I was just trying to keep up with some version of myself that I had decided was accurate.
I assumed I'd be dead by thirty. I'm not certain of the exact origins of the idea, but I'm guessing it was a biopic about Jim Morrison. Or maybe it was Sid and Nancy. Whatever Hollywood movie I had absorbed and decided was "me," the fact is that it took me years to become willing to rethink this idea of myself. The idea that I was slightly out of control (but in a charming way) and would die young had become like a favorite outfit I refused to vary because I liked how I looked in it. And at first this was exhilarating. As a teenager, I loved how I looked in the outfit of using drugs and exercising poor judgment. I had tried it on, spun around in the mirror, and decided I would choose this look, this image, this identity. But eventually and without my realizing it, the ability to choose had gone. I had become what at first I had only pretended to be.
When you can't control something—like how if I take one drink all bets are off no matter what motivation I have for controlling myself—it's easier to arrange a life in which it looks like you've chosen it all, as opposed to facing the truth: You have lost your ability to choose any of it.
On December 26th, 1991, six days before the meeting I was sitting in now, I showed up to my first twelve-step meeting to prove to my friend Sandra that no, I wasn't an alcoholic. Sandra was a semiprofessional con artist who made a lot of our drinking money ripping off old people by selling them more hearing aid than they needed. She was my most recent drinking partner and had been in and out of recovery programs for the last six years.
We were on our fourth round at Ms C's, a lesbian country and western bar, when she blurted out, "Girl, I gotta try to sober up again." Her face was swollen from a bender, and at the time I thought to myself, Quitter. "And seriously Nadia," she continued, "you're a fucking alcoholic."
I wanted to prove her wrong and maybe also get some tips on how to just control myself a little so I could enjoy my drink- ing without the bother of vomiting. So the next day, I sat pretentiously on an old sofa in the corner of a church basement, certain everyone in the room knew I was not supposed to be there. Now it was six days later, and my leg wouldn't stop twitching. I was still looking for an affirmation that I wasn't an alcoholic, so that, dear Jesus, I could go drink again.
Margery, a leather-faced woman with a New Jersey accent, was talking about prayer or some other nonsense when suddenly a sound like a pan falling on a tile floor came up from the kitchen below us. I jerked out of my seat like I was avoid- ing shrapnel, but no one else reacted. Without skipping half a beat, Margery turned to me, with a long slim cigarette in her hand and said, "Honey, that'll pass." She took a drag and went on, "So anyways, prayer is . . ."
In that moment I realized that, because of how immediately she turned to me and said this, Margery knew what it meant to be shaky from not taking a drink, knew that it apparently was temporary, and she maybe even knew how to keep from drinking, even though it sucked so much. I was in the right place. I started, very gradually, to go to these meetings and lis- ten to old broads like Margery. Even when they started talking about God.
And these people talked about God a lot. But never about an angry God who judged or condemned or was always disappointed in people. The God they spoke of was not the God I was taught to fear.
"You just have to find a higher power you can do business with," Margery suggested one morning when I admitted that I hated Christianity. "This isn't about religion, honey."
For her, God was the key to staying sober. Her relationship to God wasn't doctrinal. It was functional.
"Just stop thinking about it so damned much. When you get up in the morning ask God to help keep you sober, and before you go to sleep thank him." I cringed at the male pronoun, but that night, I did it anyway.
Reprinted by permission of Jericho Books. All rights reserved.