My two years of sobriety were gone in less than the length of a song.
Less than a month into the beginning of quarantine, I stood inside of a kratom shop in Tucson, Arizona. It was early April of 2020, shortly after the pandemic shutdown in the US had begun, and I hadn’t had a drink in over two years. The place was covered in fake-bamboo wall panels, furniture and carpets in various shades of beige-brown, and potted desert plants scattered throughout the small lobby. There were lots and lots of cacti. Lots and lots of earth tones. The style of the shop was what I would tease and describe as bohemian, typical decor for the kinds of people I imagined regularly used a mood-enhancing herbal extract, the kinds of people wanting a little pick-me-up without getting high. Which is why I was there in the first place: searching for some relief that wouldn’t blow up my whole life.
“Do you know what you’d like today, miss?” the cashier asked and stroked her hair, which was so long I couldn’t see where it ended.
“I have no idea,” I said while reading about each herbal strain. “What’s best for anxiety? I’ll just take that.”
I bought a strain called Red Hulu, the extract packed in large capsules. The cashier promised the herbs would be good for relaxation and helping me sleep. Another customer—a man in dad jeans and chunky sneakers—interrupted to say that his wife enjoyed that particular strain because of her shoulder pain. I nodded.
When I walked into my apartment twenty minutes later, I immediately swallowed some capsules, chugged them down with a pamplemousse-flavored LaCroix. Then I waited. But an hour later, I felt nothing. Not an ounce of elation or the calm I was hoping would steady my nerves. So I moved on to my plan B and drove to a nearby liquor store.
I kept the window open as I drove the few blocks, allowing the last of the coolness of the desert spring to envelop me. At this point, all I could think about was my plan. That I would only have a drink or two because I was simply anxious—everybody was these days. That this brief relapse would be just a blip in my timeline, and I’d be back on the wagon in a day or two. That almost everyone drinks, so why can’t I indulge when the world is so scary right now?
At the liquor store I bought a bottle of cheap vodka, and I held it like a baby as I walked back into my apartment: lovingly and with immense care. While preparing a screwdriver, I played some music, some of my favorite sad, Spanish boleros—the kind my father listened to while drinking his Heinekens when I was growing up.
My two years of sobriety were gone in less than the length of a song.
There’s that funny and also cringey scene in the 2002 episode of Sex and the City “Cover Girl,” where Charlotte searches a bookstore for a book to help her cope with her recent divorce. She wanders over to the self-help section—jokingly called the “self-hell section” in Carrie Bradshaw’s voiceover—and the music turns into jarring horror-movie strings. In that aisle, a woman sits on the floor, bawling and reading, tears and snot everywhere. Then, Charlotte finally spots it: Starting Over Yet Again. The hysterical woman notices Charlotte holding the book and cries out, “Really helped me.” Charlotte, embarrassed, promptly sets it back on the shelf and scuttles away, pretending she was actually looking for the travel section all along.
My two years of sobriety were gone in less than the length of a song.
Though the stigma of mental health care and awareness has evolved significantly since the early aughts, this is how I sometimes feel when people learn of my recovery from alcohol addiction, when they learn I’ve quit drinking again after an already-extended period of teetotalling. As it happens, the scene in the episode is quite funny. We’re supposed to feel embarrassed, too, of Charlotte’s failure. We laugh at the relatable shame of having to publicly give something another go—even as difficult and momentous as marriage. It’s simply human nature to err on the side of intended perfectionism, even though we are, categorically, anything but perfect.
I write this essay with almost seven months of sobriety, thankfully, though I’ve been in recovery for over a decade. Because my journey hasn’t been linear—like so many popular movies and stories will have you believe, where the protagonist temporarily gets caught up in some bad behavior, sobers up, and then the story ends—I always fear one judgment in particular: There goes Natalie, starting over . . . yet again.
I walked into my first recovery meeting at age twenty-one. It was 2008, in Washington Heights in Manhattan—a city I didn’t live in—so I was certain I wouldn’t run into anyone I knew.
That summer, I was in New York City for an internship at MTV Tres, and I felt exceptionally unhip and insecure about everything in my life: my weight, my lack of style, my lack of money. I was always first to suggest to the other interns that we go out for three-dollar margaritas after work. Once socializing was over, I’d take the subway home and stop at the bodega near the boarding house I was renting a room from. I often needed more to drink, a little extra somethin’ somethin’ to keep the buzz going until I fell asleep.
What I remember about the meeting is that it was located in a hospital at lunchtime. I remember a man in his thirties weeping about trying to quit using drugs. Beyond that, I remember all the weird jargon I’d never heard before—cross talk, boundaries, hitting bottom. The whole experience was so overwhelming that I ran off after the meeting, pretending like I’d never been there once I returned to school in Chicago in the fall.
I wasn’t ready.
By that time in my life, I knew my drinking was problematic. I’d become an everyday drinker, secretly sipping vodka in my bedroom after my roommates had gone to bed. It was really no secret, though. Periodically, my roommates would sit me down at the kitchen table, brows furrowed in concern and confusion, and say, “We’re worried about you. We think you need help.” I would proceed to lie and promise that I’d try therapy at the campus mental health center, or I’d say that I was reading a powerful new self-help book, or maybe that I’d try a recovery program sometime—and that was enough to keep them off my back for a few weeks.
The truth is, as a young person, I felt my drinking was justified. I was the first in my family to graduate from high school, was from a working-class Latinx community outside Miami, and now was at an elite private college in an affluent Chicago suburb; it seemed that all my peers were wealthy, thin, smarter than me, and had grown up in two-parent homes with parents who’d also gone to college. I was resentful.
And I never felt good enough when I was there (in those days we weren’t, as a culture, discussing college access and supporting first-generation students, the way we do now). And my poor roommates had no idea what to do with me. Most mornings, they’d look at me despondently, and I would offer my best full-toothed smile.
I knew that statistically I wasn’t supposed to be there. Other students sometimes reminded me of that fact too. Once, a girl on my floor—a blond from Greenwich, Connecticut—stopped me in the laundry room to ask what I thought of affirmative action. I don’t remember what I told her, but I do remember it was the only time she ever spoke with me in the two years I lived in that dorm.
I’m pretty sure I got drunk that night; I didn’t know what else to do with all my discomfort. At the time, it was the only tool I had to cope.
Some people believe that various substances can offer temporary relief for a period of time. I also believe this now. They can offer us a mechanism for survival, for managing the pains of existence when we don’t know a more productive way to live, until they ultimately cause us too much harm.
If you look at the numbers from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), approximately one in ten Latinxs will deal with alcohol dependence at some point in their lives. And more than 33 percent of Latinx folks will have recurrent or persistent problems—relapses—at a higher rate than their white peers, who come in at 22.8 percent. Often in Latinx culture, women do not drink alcohol outside of the home or family gatherings. The NIAAA points out, however, that this cultural norm is changing. There is newer evidence that demonstrates how young Latinx women are drinking as much or even more than young Latinx men.
When I was a teenager and my drinking was taking off on the weekends—blackouts where friends had to recount my evening to me the following day—I knew a lot of alcoholics. Almost everyone I knew drank to excess, especially during celebrations.
What I didn’t know were any sober alcoholics.
The first time I heard someone call themself an alcoholic outside of a recovery meeting, I was twenty-three years old and working in reality-TV production in Los Angeles. I heard the producer of a show I was a production coordinator on sayno to getting drinks after work, then call himself sober. I thought: Why is this fool embarrassing himself like that?
A few weeks later, I heard a woman at work say the same thing. That she, too, was sober. She was beautiful, and smart, and she had a calmness about her and a confidence that I admired immensely. She always stood up straight and looked you in the eye when she was speaking to you. I wanted to be like her one day. Unafraid. She made sobriety look like something I wanted.
My own drinking was escalating. There were more blackouts; there was more time unaccounted for. Events and conversations I couldn’t remember a single moment of the next day.
At twenty-four, I finally gave sobriety a try.
The first time I got drunk, I was fourteen. My father had recently moved out to be with the neighbor (yes, the lady who lived in the literal house next door), and I’d just met their new baby.
At a party my friend got an invite to, beers were being passed around all night, and I drank until I was sick. The morning after, I didn’t regret the headache, or the vomiting, but instead, I yearned for the moment again when the world had stopped moving. For the pause. When I’d reached the perfect amount of inebriation and my large body was so light I felt like what I imagine an astronaut feels like floating in space for the first time, counting each star in sight, one by one. What it feels like to be untethered and disconnected from the world. And I spent so much of my life wanting to recreate that feeling, even though I was never able to achieve it exactly as it was that first time.
With as much suffering as alcohol has caused in my life, I used to wonder why I’ve struggled with addiction. That as smart and accomplished as I think I am, I couldn’t escape the hold liquor can have on my life. You see, it is easy to blame childhood dysfunction on my alcoholism. It is easy to blame intergenerational trauma. I’ve met a lot of drunks with crap from their childhood weighing them down, but I’ve also met plenty who grew up in stable homes, with happy families in large houses, like in popular ’90s-TV sitcoms.
But the why doesn’t matter so much to me now. What matters, to me, is letting go of the things that do not serve me. As I get older, I let go more easily; I’m faster to trash the things that hurt me too much, anything that gnaws at my heart at night. Whether that be alcohol or something trivial, like an awkward first date, or an embarrassing thing I say at a party one night.
My drinking during the pandemic wasn’t full of the calamity of my early twenties. There was no waking up in the bright morning light in the messy bed of a stranger. There weren’t a lot of apologies to give the next day.
What matters, to me, is letting go of the things that do not serve me.
Mostly, I was just sad.
So when I quit drinking last year, it was somehow easier to toss the bottles out this time. It hasn’t always been this effortless for me, and I know it isn’t for others, but I woke up one day last November hungover, dehydrated, and confused, and I didn’t want to wake up the next morning feeling the same. I was finally done.
Maybe it was the pandemic? Maybe it’s getting older? Either way, it was a grace.
The best part of aging, for me, is the wisdom we accrue with each year. I feel less consumed by what others think of me—by my perceived failures or my shortcomings; I have so many of them. What I know is that there is life on this side. I make, I give, and I love on this side—as cheesy as that sounds. I don’t care about being cheesy anymore.
What I missed most, during this relapse, was my writing practice—a pursuit that has become an integral part of my life, my identity, my joy. And, unlike Cheever and Hemingway, I do not write when I’m drunk. My magnum opus will never be written on a napkin at a dive bar, after I’ve lost the love of my life and have drank all my money away.
I’ve learned that I can only write when my life is peaceful—when my bills are paid, when I’m not aching over a romance, when my life is quiet. Frankly, I can only write when my life is a bit boring.
I now yearn for boring. It’s the quiet of living sober that stirs my creativity and fills up my life again. I often say to sober friends that I wouldn’t wish a relapse on my worst enemy, which is certainly true. But please know that I’ll always save a hug and a seat for you, right beside me, if you ever find yourself getting sober, yet again.
Natalie Lima is a Cuban-Puerto Rican writer and a graduate of the MFA program in creative nonfiction writing at the University of Arizona. Her essays and fiction have been published or are forthcoming in Longreads, Guernica, Brevity, The Offing, Catapult and elsewhere. She has received fellowships from PEN America Emerging Voices, Tin House, the VONA/Voices Workshop, the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, and a residency from Hedgebrook. You can find her on IG and Twitter @natalielima09.