February 24, 2015

I Fell, Upward: What Happened after I Stopped Drinking.

cait liam mountaintop

I don’t remember my last drink.

I remember taking the bus home from the hospital, though, and a great feeling of conclusion.

I was done. I had been trying to quit for ten years, and something in me that day just collapsed. I surrendered.

I hadn’t been suddenly empowered with hope, redemption or touched by someone’s version of God’s light. I knew I was facing a good week of withdrawal and illness before I could even hope to coax a coherent thought out of my long-abused brain. And then, life—which at that point looked as enticing as wading into the fire swamps in The Princess Bride. 

I don’t want to tell you the story of my drunkenness. You’ve heard it before, or seen it before, or a version of it. It is not unique. I don’t have a tale to weave for you of bizarre miracles and angels and heavenly choirs.

I want to tell you of simple amazement.

I fell, upwards. I fell into a life, once I stopped shaking and twitching and seeing things and vomiting.

Once I shook a decade of dust off my hair and my fingertips and my eyelashes, and emerged from my basement suite like a new colt on shaky, shuddering legs, a world awaited.

The first amazements were sensations. My soul and spirit had been darkened, beaten to shreds (most notably by myself) and toward the end I sometimes made the (not actually humorous at all) joke that my heart was now just full of black spiders. Aside from the deep, enduring and passionate love for my son that never, ever left (albeit mixed with a giant helping of guilt and shame) I really had felt nothing but a great, yawning crevasse of awfulness for a long time. Physical and mental pleasure were gone.

So the first blessing was this: touch. Sun on my skin. Earth beneath my feet. Stumbling on those shaky legs into a coastal British Columbia awash with early spring. Everything bright was a shock to my eyes, but the colours and the feelings of actually existing, being present, not numb, was a weird, stunning high in itself. I walked everywhere, gingerly. People’s voices were painful. Looking at people, interacting, making phone calls without alcohol was a magnificent feat done shakily and completed with great relief.

I had not spent ten entire years drunk. But I had never been as sick, or run-down, or bereft and empty as I was when I quit. I had never experienced this reawakening.

I assure you, I had no self-pity. Self-hatred, sure. I had a basement full of that. I had left a house chock-full of my own self-hatred and misery in Alberta six months before and ran to BC, forgetting momentarily that the problem was not geographical, but internal. The problem was me. 

Unfortunately, I couldn’t outrun myself.

But now every experience, every day, not always pleasant but always, always half-terrifying, was a slow emergence of awakening.

It is a strange and sacred blessing that, while sobering up plummeted me back into a world full-speed-ahead (with all its incumbent duties, debts, responsibilities), it also left me like someone blind who has suddenly been granted sight—everything, from the trees to children to grass, holy-mother-of-god green grass on my bare, blessed, pasty-white feet was absolutely heart-breakingly, drop-me-to-my-knees amazing.

I went around in half-awe, half-stupidity (the brain thaw from years of substance abuse takes, sometimes discouragingly, up to several years), half-anxiety and agony, living from moment to moment, meal to meal, from a poem I read every morning to a phone call to my son every bedtime.

The clear, crisp taste of an apple. The sweet, painful at first process of running again. Music. Reading. I swore to myself over and over that I would never take these things for granted again.

One morning I stopped mid-run to watch a regatta pass elegantly by. The sailboats were so close I could almost reach out and touch the sails, huge, glorious, moving almost silently. Other people had stopped as well and we half smiled at one another, quiet, together in this moment of overwhelming loveliness.

Something unclenched inside of me. It felt like a rupture—I doubled over for a moment, unsure if I had torn a muscle or if my heart was going to burst out of my chest. I ran, slowly, home.

Later that afternoon, clutching a beloved volume of Mary Oliver poems, I sat on the beach and cried for the first time in months.

Tears. Salt. The taste of food. Taste—my taste buds had been so long eroded that food was a dreamy explosion in my mouth. My body craved fruit, green vegetables, blackberries, tea.

Smiles. From strangers, from friends at meetings, from people busking on the street or over the counter in the bookstore. I collected smiles with my eyes like mini-snapshots, treasures in the archives of my mind. Moments of connection, everywhere, just waiting to be found.

Five months sober, I moved back to Alberta. I spent an intrepid week camping in my one man tent with my sister (and one sleeping bag, bizarrely, her having forgotten hers) while we apartment-hunted for her in Vancouver. Healing laughter, tears, conversations that had been on hold for years. We met my family in Kelowna, at the Okanagan, and I spent the rest of the summer with my son.

Earning trust. Talking, playing. Watching all the Rocky movies on consecutive nights. Diving with goggles on to see the dirty rocks at the bottom of the lake over and over (painfully) just to hear him proclaim as we walked home, “What a really, really good day this was, Mom!” We went to folk fest—where by far the best part for him was witnessing the many insanely crazy ways people dance.

Reading out loud. One night I fell asleep before him and he woke me up, weeping, after staying up late to finish Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt—a beloved childhood favorite of mine. He needed hugs, and I revelled in having passed on one of my greatest loves to him: books. Books—amazing. 

At night, sometimes, I cried with anger, and joy. I still do. A complicated sadness. Anger at myself for all the things I had missed with him (the hugs! the little talks! his morning crabbiness!), and so much spilling over joy at being present again. Every single morning.

My mother managed to put up with me for almost two months of day-to-day-life (now that was, in fact, an actual miracle). I found my own home. I registered and was accepted to return to school and finish my English degree.

Amazing. There is no other word for it, this year of mine. It has not become less amazing (as I feared, the initial delights wearing off), but more. The abundance to be found in the simple things; the first sip of hot black coffee, the first glimpse of the sun, the searing burn in my muscles after a good hard run, the familiarity with which my son bursts in the door after school, still cause my stomach to drop in joyous awe.

There have been challenges. There always will be. There are days when, riddled with panic and anxiety, I have to remind myself to breathe, over and over. Remind myself to consider the worst thing that could happen, that day. I’d fail a test? I’d have to apologize to someone for being crabby? I’d run out of money?

I have had nights where I’ve had to ride the waves of worry until dawn, and I realize now that being sober for this painful part of life is glorious. At the time it is awful, and the abyss of depression is one I tread with care around, but it is absolutely, spectacularly, doable. Liveable. Sober. Afterwards, I know for a fact that when that challenge arises again I can dive headfirst into it and emerge safely out the other side.

I have discovered there is no end of help available when one can find the courage to ask. I am lucky to have had a family that accepted me back, but for others who don’t, there is still help. There are people who understand and are just waiting out there, revolving through their own lives, for someone to reach out and ask them for help.

This has not just been a sobriety lesson, but a life one. At school, with loved ones, even (perhaps especially and most simply) on my writing journey—honesty, being open and willing to accept some guidance goes a long way. And this, too, is amazing. No end of suffering in my past life could have been prevented by that—an outstretched hand, a phone call, ask. Ask.

Several nights ago I had my one year birthday in sobriety. My mother drove three hours with a car laden by gifts of fresh food, delicious cake and enormous love, and Liam and I ate fantastic Indian food with her, and talked non-stop, and had a Skype date with my beautiful sister in Vancouver whose actual birthday it also was.

The taste of food still surprises me every day. The sound of my son’s voice as he calls out to me still sounds like music. The people who reach out to me—in real life, in email, through elephant journal—are a continuous source of encouragement and happy tears. My boyfriend’s patience and quiet presence and support through it all. My roommate’s gorgeous peals of laughter in our household.

The sun still kisses my eyelids and I still capture the smiles of strangers to carry in my heart.


 “Bring me your suffering.
The rattle roar of broken bones.

Bring me the riot in your heart.
Angry, wild and raw.

Bring it all.

I am not afraid of the dark.”
~ Mia Hollow



Relephant Reads:

What to Do With the Weight of the World.

Drinking To Distraction: An Excerpt.



Author: Keeley Milne

Editor: Emily Bartran 

Photos: Author’s Own

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