by Susan Linney
Photo credit: Andy Kropa
For many years I wrote nightly in a journal, with a pen and a bound book of beautiful empty pages, which I filled fast and furiously before bed.
Then one day, I stopped. As near as I can figure, this quitting occurred around the time Wifi came into my life and my apartment. Instead of bringing my journal into bed with me, I brought my laptop. And while I’m pretty sure I simply meant to shift my personal reflections to the digital writing device I was now using so often, clearly I was an analog-only journaler. It was in 2007 — ironically, the same year I started a Facebook account — that my 20-year journaling career came to a screeching halt.
I realized this a few weeks ago, while organizing boxes in my stuffed-to-the-max storage unit. I found one filled with all of my old journals; writing that began in the 8th grade and went right through my 32nd birthday. There were more than 30 various notebooks in that box, of all different shapes, colors and sizes. A 20-year record of some of the most important (and not so important) moments in my life.
I’ve been pouring over these journals for the past few weeks, and I’ve realized that the negative voice in my head — that THING that’s so closely tied in with my alcoholism — existed before I ever drank.
In my earlier entries, the teenage years, there’s a pervasive undercurrent of self-loathing. I know that most kids experience the inevitable teen angst “bullshit” (some even come with a body count), but there’s something about my writing that goes beyond basic growing pains.
In most of my entries I question my entire being — not my circumstances (such as, I hate my school, why is everyone so stuck up?, etc). Instead, I cite laundry lists of problems with my character. Things like: “What’s wrong with ME? Why am I so different? Why can’t I just feel normal? What can’t I say what I want to say? Why am I so broken?”
This entry, from October 22, 1991 (I was 16), sums it up the best:
“Why was I born like this? I try so hard to speak, to pull those strings of thought from the pit of my stomach into my throat, but it only makes me choke. I doubt what I have to say makes much difference anyway, but why can’t I at least say it? I find safety in silence, but it also makes me hate myself. How can I expect to be or do anything with my life when I’m so afraid of everyone and everything in it?”
Or this poem, written on January 3, 1992:
“She rests her hand on her empty belly
That is starved not of food, but of feeling.
In a light sleep, she can trace the edges of happy memories
But the pictures fade and her open eyes erase.
She frowns and sees her companion birthed by the mirror
And knows that she can only starve for so long
Before nothing molds her into nothing.”
OK so the poem is pretty bad. But its basic message is very helpful to me now: I was empty. I was lost. I had nothing inside that excited me. I had no idea who I was. I had no idea what I wanted to be.
All things that alcoholics often feel — and find relief from in the form of a bottle.
Perhaps the most telling tidbit to share is my first entry that mentions booze, which was written in 1998. I don’t say it explicitly, but the connection is clear. Mind you, at this point I’m 23, working at a publishing house, no longer a kid but clearly still struggling with self-doubt. (“Why can’t I just SAY HOW I FEEL?” I whined in one entry from late ’97. “Everyone loves me at work, I’m able to step up to the plate, but it’s torture. I want to share my ideas without feeling like I’m going to faint or forget how to speak.”)
But on the night of October 3, 1998, something clicked. Why it hadn’t before, I’ll never know, but it really doesn’t matter. That voice I longed for? That empty hole I was trying to fill? I finally found the solution that evening. Alcohol.
“FINALLY. I was the person I want to be tonight. I was in my body and able to speak. XXXX took me to a launch party for one of her clients, and while I was around people I didn’t know, I was actually able to talk. And enjoy myself. I felt like I fit. They were all grown ups, and I felt like a grown up, too. The pre-party open bar certainly helped, and I even bought a few rounds for my new friends once the freebies were finished. So maybe it just takes time. Getting older. Believing I’m a grown up, cocktail in hand, unafraid to express myself and tell my funny stories. Could this be it? The end of my social anxiety? God, please, I hope so.”
Sadly, the answer was yes, but for a limited time. Because it was the booze that gave me a feeling of self worth that night — a feeling I had never really had before. I wouldn’t call it liquid courage, it’s more complicated than that. Instead, it was a solution, something that finally filled that hole, squashed those fears, shut off that negative voice and allowed me to express myself. Something that felt so right. It was what had been missing all along.
And it worked for quite a while. A long while. And that’s the real the bitch of this disease. It works until suddenly it doesn’t. It turns on you when you least expect it, and if you drank as much as I did, it leaves you in the clutches of a progressive, irreversible illness, and will not let go without a vicious, down and dirty fight.
So you drink more, hoping beyond hope that things will go back to the way they used to be.
But once you’ve passed a certain point, it’s impossible — and almost equally impossible is the ability for the active alcoholic to understand this fact and believe it. I never did, until I finally hit that bottom that gave me no choice but to see the truth.
But you’ve heard about all that.
So I’m grateful for all those pre-computer years when I wrote in a journal. Those entries give me insights that are so helpful to me now. I’m going to try to get back into the practice, because who knows what I could teach my future self? In many ways, those writings probably saved me on certain occasions; if not then, they certainly are now, as I look back in an effort to live forward, clean and sober. Alcoholism is a chronic, progressive, lifelong disease — one that cannot be cured but, luckily, can be treated.
But it’s often easy to forget this fact. Now that I have my journals, I have yet another reminder of what I am, what I have to do to to live well, how far I’ve come, and how much I have to lose. I’m still learning how to fill that hole — and why it came to exist in the first place. Which certainly isn’t easy. But I’m no longer living with booze-filled blinders on. My life may still not be what I’ve longed for (although it is getting close), but at least it’s no longer a lie.
Read more of Susan Linney’s “Bottles Down” column on TueNight. You can find her on Twitter @Susan_Linney.
TueNight is a weekly online publication for women to share where they’ve been and explore where they want to go next. We are you, part two. www.tuenight.com
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.