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On the desire to be misunderstood
You’re welcome to take the liquor bottles, I texted the Craigslist guy en route to buy our credenza.
Before he responded, I placed my phone in my pocket and pulled the bottles and tequila-sipping glasses from the bottle racks. I arranged them neatly on the marble countertop. Half the bottles were unopened—unlike me, my partner was never much of a drinker—the Jaja Tequila and Havana Club were short a cup or two, tops.
I took a photo of the bottles and glasses. Stopped, and wiped down the countertop. Took another. “Maybe we can sell the bottles and glasses on Craigslist too?” I yell to my fiance, who was in the bedroom tossing his sneakers into a cardboard box.
He leaned into the doorway and shrugged. “Or just get rid of them?”
I nodded. I realized this idea was absurd as soon as it came out of my mouth. I didn’t pay for any of it. I didn’t even drink. My fiance went back into the bedroom to pack, and I placed the bottles and glasses into a black grocery bag.
The Havana Club peaked out the top of the bag. Without thought, I took the bottle into my hand and popped the cork.
The principle my sponsor and I were working on then was honesty. “With yourself, and with me,” she said to me.
I scribbled this into the margins of my Big Book and made a mental list of the things I had not told her. Or rather, chosen not to tell her:
The handful of times I ate edibles with my partner.
The underground therapist I spoke to about MDMA therapy and subsequently ghosted.
The CBD gummies I ate when I couldn’t sleep or just because.
The kombucha I brewed but no longer measured for alcohol content.
Was that dishonesty? At the time, I reasoned that each of these blips—if you could call them that—came and went over my first 8 years of sobriety without much fanfare. My sugar hangovers after a night of shoveling Sour Patch Kids into my mouth at the movies were far, far worse.
Still, if my sponsor ever came over, I knew I’d shove the jar of kombucha brew below the kitchen sink. That was dishonesty.
“To lie is to recoil from relationship,” Sam Harris writes in Lying. “It is both a failure of understanding and an unwillingness to be understood.”
I used to run with women who drank like I did. Musicians, confident ones. We kept handles of Jim Beam and Cuervo in the backseat of my Toyota 4Runner, passed the open bottles around the truck, taking swigs before soundcheck. We lived off of Nutrigrain bars and Top Ramen boiled on some booking agent’s gas stove, with Stop N’Shop wilted cabbage and baby carrots tossed in for nutrients. I sometimes craved that high fructose blackberry jam as much as I did the lukewarm Cuervo. It wasn’t the booze I missed so much as that facade of bottomless youth. The idea that I had plenty of runway to be careless. That runway was getting shorter, I knew.
Ten years later, the only big drinkers left in my life were ex-drinkers. My partner and even my partners’ partner didn’t drink. Not because they couldn’t—they just didn’t like it. I loved this about them.
I didn’t drink because I loved it more than anything on the face of the fucking earth. Chose it over everything if I could. And because I knew alcohol was one domino along a painful, serpentine path of lies. I knew that if I drank, even now, I would nurse my glass of cabernet over dinner like an adult, and then, only once my partner had fallen asleep, would I peel their arms off of me and quietly slip out of bed to polish off whatever was left on the kitchen counter.
My sponsor told me to keep a running list of things I was powerless over:
My brother’s mental illness
My fiance’s needs
Which grad schools I get into
What others think of me
“What about alcohol?” She asked. I hadn’t even put it on the list. It had been eight years!
She didn’t like me writing publicly about my recovery, and I suspect she wouldn’t like that I’m writing this now. I added this story to the list of things I concealed from her and made a mental note to tell her, though by the time it was finished, we were no longer working together.
One of the newly sober women who would call back in those days told me she was still going to bars with her girlfriends. She’d sit back and watch as her friends ordered bottomless mimosas and snorted lines from the bathroom sink. “It doesn’t bother me,” she said. “They even ask if I’m okay with it.”
I used to act cavalier around other drinkers in this way, like the ex-smoker who insists he likes the smell of secondhand smoke. Go right ahead, order another drink I’d tell a date, nursing my club soda. I’m fine.
I was—mostly. But the truth was it made me happy when other people didn’t drink. I wanted them closer, sober, on the same plane as me. But I wanted them to think of me in a certain light. Or else—what?
“To lie is to recoil from relationship,” Sam Harris writes in Lying. “It condenses a lack of trust and trustworthiness in a single act. It is both a failure of understanding and an unwillingness to be understood.”
The truth was, I was lying. All the time. Some big lies, like my engagement, but also small, stupid ones. How I told people I lived in Turkey for a year because it sounds more impressive than 9 months. The irony in all of this, always, is how self-defeating it is. I want to be loved. I want to love myself, too. But which version?
I held the open bottle of Havana Club and inhaled the fumes. Notes of burnt caramel and molasses tickled the back of my throat. With the still cork in my hands, I glanced into the doorway. My partner was busy packing books. He would never know.
My phone dinged.
I’m downstairs, the Craiglist guy texted.
I replaced the cap and buzzed him into the building.
A few minutes later, as he was carrying our credenza with a buddy, I realized he’d left behind the black shopping bag with the bottles and sipping glasses. I chased him into the hallway and slipped the bag into one of the drawers.
”Please,” I insisted. “Enjoy it.”
Before my sponsor and I stopped working together—because of the things I would eventually confess I’d withheld, things about myself and my recovery that were messy and understandably way above her pay grade—I told her the principle I cared about most was integrity.
I understood I had to start telling the truth and live with the consequences. To risk being truly known, or rejected, or loved. Because, as Donald Winnicott wrote, “It is a joy to be hidden, and a disaster not to be found.”
What a pain in the ass. How unbelievably lucky we are.
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