By Brian Broome
Special to the Pittsburgh Current
In 2020, there are days when I want to get drunk so badly I can hardly stand it.
It doesn’t help that I live within walking distance of a liquor store, which I have to pass when I walk to buy groceries. Since I wear a mask, I can actually hear my breathing become heavier as I pass it some days. A whole building filled with bottles of relief.
My social circle has consisted of only one or two people over the past 10 months, anyway — so no one would know if I went inside and bought a bottle. Sometimes, when I pass that liquor store, I’m breathing so hard that my mask fogs up my glasses and I have to take them off for a moment and everything becomes fuzzy. This actually helps. Not being able to see clearly. I stop to wipe the lenses and I think I can feel my heart beating faster. But so far I’ve managed not to stop at my neighborhood liquor store. Sometimes, I keep moving without even bothering to un-fog my glasses. I keep a steady course because I know what’s at stake. I know that the world I’ve managed to create for myself would fall apart completely if I began using again. I would become the version of myself that I most hate. I would lose the job I’ve worked so hard to get. I would embark upon a campaign of deceitfulness and selfishness which would, once again, alienate and hurt the people around me. I know that I never again want to be the person that I was. He was pathetic. He was vile.
December 5, 2020 marks my eighth year of sobriety and I thought that, by this time, strong urges to drink would be in my past. And, by and large, they have been. As the years went on, I found myself thinking about it less and less. Then the pandemic came along.
Endless days spent alone trying to keep busy. Ultimately, I end up in my own head which is the worst place for an alcoholic to spend a great deal of time. I start to hear the voice of the version of me I thought I locked up in the basement. He tells me that there is no one there to stop me. That no one would know if I just don’t say anything. My anxieties begin to resurface. Eight years ago, I threw alcohol on them as one would throw water on a pile of burning leaves. After I chose sobriety, I could manage these feelings better by going to AA meetings. Being in a room with real-live people who are going through the same thing was a comfort and a godsend. But now, amid so much silence, I am struggling with these anxieties again: attacked on all sides by worry for the future, regret for the past, disdain for the present. A relentless wasp’s nest of fear buzzing non-stop inside my head until I am broken out in a cold sweat. The political tumult that has come with the past four years also serves to exacerbate.
When I first emerged from rehab eight years ago, I immediately took to my apartment. I didn’t leave it unless it was absolutely necessary. I stayed in. I minded my business. I avoided hanging out with old friends because many of them drank and I was afraid that, if I saw them, old habits would re-emerge. I only went to work, school, and the occasional AA meeting. It was a self-imposed isolation that I thought would keep me safe from relapse.
I went to work, school and back again.
I am not nearly as much of a people person” when alcohol isn’t involved. In retrospect, I know that this wasn’t a healthy way to live. But I had realized that I would have to endure occasional feelings of loneliness in order to stay sober.
Work, school, the occasional AA meeting, and then back home again. I would spend my evening reading or watching television alone.
Now there is no work to go to.
There is no school.
The AA meetings have been canceled.
I do not know where to find the avuncular, older gentleman who would greet me warmly at the door of the church of my homegroup. I do not know his last name. There is no newcomer cowering in a corner. There are no well-meaning, sincere, if not a bit too eager, veterans surrounding the newcomer and welcoming him to his first AA meeting. The room at the community center sits silent and empty. The church basement is devoid of life. There is only home.
Now, I meet with AA groups virtually. We all huddle ourselves on to one screen, one head on top of the other like a dysfunctional Brady Bunch. Talking heads. Some people I can barely see behind their clouds of smoke. They tell me they’re struggling as well. One man says the pandemic is all a lie. He wears his mask beneath his nose whenever he goes anywhere as a form of protest and he cannot understand all the fuss. He is attacked by the rest of the group. I swallow my words and conceal my disdain for him.
I admit to the group that I’ve taken to wrapping myself in my sheets right after I pull them out of the dryer because it mimics human touch. It approximates a hug. They laugh. The virtual support group helps, but not like having live human support. There is no smell of bad coffee, no meet-up in a Chinese restaurant after, there is only the turning off of screens.
I do not share with them that my breathing and heartbeat quicken at least a couple times a week when I walk past my neighborhood liquor store. I am afraid that I will wander in powered by muscle memory alone. I walk more quickly because I know that I can easily be overcome by depression and anxiety.
This, I tell only to my sponsor.
“This too shall pass,” he says. He tells me not to surrender to my own demons.
I can only hope it passes soon.
In the past several months, I have found isolation suits me less and less. I am realizing that with self-imposed isolation, at least I knew the rest of the world was out there and I was choosing not to take part in it. There was comfort in knowing that, should I choose to engage with it, the world was waiting for me. This new isolation is different. Necessary but forced. Dystopian. It shares a dark and hopeless nature with the life of drinking and drugs that I used to lead and puts me back in that mindset.
I thought that, after eight years, I had come to a place where I would no longer feel like this about alcohol. Then the pandemic came. And whenever I am on my way to the grocery store, I am reminded that I still have much work to do. Addiction is fueled by many things: trauma, depression, anxiety, feelings of hopelessness. And at this moment in history, our news cycle is full to bursting with all those things all day every day. We are surrounded. These dark days are particularly difficult for the addict because every addict has a way out. An escape hatch that ultimately only leads them somewhere worse.
But I promised myself that I will keep walking straight past my neighborhood liquor store. I have promised myself that I will even run if I have to.
Brian Broome is a K. Leroy Irvis Fellow and is a writer of nonfiction whose work has been featured in The Guardian, Creative Nonfiction, Hippocampus. His book Punch Me Up to the Gods is available for pre-order. Learn more at BrianBroome.com