What's the next right thing?
How my last drunken night in Chicago taught me to meet the moment in front of me.
What the hell happened last night?
I had a pounding headache. My back was brittle and sore. Around me, the band was still knocked out, their coats draped over their heads. Everything wreaked of stale PBR and mold.
I sat up and put my head in my hands, trying to piece together how we’d ended up in what I could only piece together was a dank, dark basement.
We were in Chicago. We’d played a midnight gig at a burger joint, then had couple of half-price Miller High Life’s at the bar. Afterward, more beers, more whiskey. Somebody yelled for shots. We’d been too broke and too drunk to find a place to stay, so we crashed in the venue’s green room. But the venue shared an adjoining wall with a death metal club, so we couldn’t sleep. At some point, I’d woken up to the sensation of two men I’d never seen before standing over me, whispering. I’d frozen like a small, feral animal until eventually they went into the bathroom, snorted coke, and left. And now, I was awake, and the room was spinning.
My purse buzzed. I dug into my bag for my water bottle and laid back down onto the pleather loveseat with my phone.
It was a Facebook message. Sorry I couldn’t make the show. Get together later? my friend Adriana wrote.
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I hadn’t seen or spoken to Adriana since unceremoniously dropping out of college in New York and moving to Texas to be a songwriter. Meanwhile, Adriana had finished school, gotten a job, and moved to Chicago with her girlfriend. It had been six years. I scrolled through her Facebook profile, filled with images of a life I didn’t have: diplomas, moving trucks, Christmas Eves and Fourth of July’s with her partner. She seemed stable, happy. I, in comparison, felt like a wreck. This oughta be awkward, I thought.
Would love to catch up, I lied.
On the surface, things were great. I was 24. My new band, The Sweetness, was only in its first year and already packing rooms across North America and Europe. We’d scored a slot opening for a big German band, and on our very first European tour, got scouted by a German film student who wanted to shoot a documentary about us. Now I was out on the road, touring the Midwest with four German film students and my three best friends. Living the dream.
Only one problem: We were fucking miserable.
The band fought daily. We were four songwriters split between Austin and Toronto, with competing solo careers and bills to think about. Half the band was secretly hooking up with the other half, which historically always works out great. Long drives between cities were icy and tense. We couldn’t confront the reality of what was happening, so instead, we played gigs, we partied, and we drank.
I wasn’t doing much better. I’d just split with my boyfriend of a year. I’d been playing dank dive bars for four years, trying to build an indie music career, and I was tired. Now the band I had hoped would finally catapult my career was cannibalizing itself. All around me, my friends were getting signed, getting married, getting degrees. I was getting drunk. Imagining the next year of my life made me heavy with sadness. After shows, I would crawl into bed wired and afraid, trying to figure out what the fuck I was going to do once the tour was over. When I couldn’t sleep, I topped off whatever amount of free whiskey I’d drank on stage with swigs from the bottle of Jose Cuervo Gold I kept tucked in the backseat of my Toyota 4Runner.
I wasn’t sure if seeing Adriana would make me feel better or worse, but something inside me told me I could use a friend.
When I arrived at the cafe that evening, Adriana was already inside, tucked into a small booth. She stood to give me a hug. She looked healthy, happy. Just like she had in college.
“I wish I could’ve seen you play,” she said, and sat back down. “It was just a little on the late side for me.”
“Don’t sweat it,” I said and flagged down the waitress. “You want a beer?”
“A diet coke,” she told the waitress.
“Just a coffee then,” I said to the waitress, handing her my menu. The waitress nodded and walked away.
“I stopped drinking a few years ago,” Adriana said.
“Why?” I asked, my curiosity piqued. Adriana and I had shared a few sloppy nights in the dorms, but nothing about her drinking had ever seemed out of control.
“I got really depressed a few years back. My doctor put me on meds,” she said. “Since alcohol is a depressant, she explained that they’d be way more effective if I didn’t drink.”
“Just like that?” I gulped. “You just…stopped?”
“Yeah,” Adriana said. The waitress returned and placed our drinks onto the table.
I took the warm coffee mug between my palms and felt an old, familiar caving in my chest. I’d been on antidepressants since I was 16, and over the past year, my depression had gotten progressively worse. I was barely present for our shows. Off the road, I spent most afternoons in my room, hungover, too despondent to get out of bed.
A few times, I’d gone to AA meetings. Every time, I’d cobble together a few days, the fog would start to lift, and I’d quit going to meetings and drink again. Mostly, for lack of imagination: I just couldn’t imagine ever changing. Not drinking for a couple of days was one thing. But the rest of my life? It seemed impossible.
I was in awe of Adriana. Envious. Who the fuck just stops drinking?
(People who don’t have a drinking problem—that’s who.)
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I know this now: Envy is an arrow. It always points toward the thing I badly want for myself but am too scared to imagine I could have.
After Adriana and I said goodnight, I walked back to my car and sat in the driver’s seat, an uncomfortable pull in my chest. It was 9:30pm. Back at the hotel, the band and the Germans were undoubtedly cracking into the case of wine we’d been gifted at our winery gig earlier that week. I imagined the Germans taking swigs straight from the bottle, laughing and drinking. The scent of dry cabernet burned off my tongue.
Adriana had changed. Why couldn’t I?
I pulled out my phone and searched “AA Meetings Chicago.” There was one more meeting that night in Highland Park at 10 pm. If I drove directly, I might make it in time.
I hadn’t been to a recovery meeting in four years, but I couldn’t think about that. All I could think about was Adriana, about my fear of going back to the hotel room, of getting buzzed for the 946th night in a row and the inevitable, sinking sadness I would wake to the next morning if I did. I wasn’t sure if quitting drinking would take the sadness away or fix the band. I just knew it wouldn’t make things any better that night.
Thirty minutes later, I pulled into a sleepy strip mall in Highland Park. I checked the building number and saw a little navy blue sign with “AA” stamped on it hanging on the doorknob—the international signal for “no turning back now—you found the meeting.” I hesitated. I knew what it meant to walk through that door. It not only meant saying, out loud to a room full of strangers, that I had a problem. It meant having to do something about it. It meant probably not drinking that day—something I hadn’t pulled off in many years.
What about the rest of the tour? We were in bars every night. Shit, alcohol was often our only guaranteed pay. What would I tell the band?
Stop, I thought. Just turn off the ignition and get out of the car.
I walked across the street and entered the building, my heart pumping in long, slow gasps.
Inside, the room was illuminated with a warm yellow light. Seven or eight people milled about a few rows of iron chairs, the kind with embroidered seats that I used to stack before and after church as a kid. The walls were covered with the AA slogans like “Easy Does It” and “Keep Coming Back.” There was a framed photo of Bill W, the founder of AA, which I’d seen before. It had always creeped me out, like he was some sort of deity. Like it was church. Just stay long enough for the meeting, a voice inside of me said. Everyone else was middle-aged and white. I was the youngest, by far. What on earth would they say to me that I could relate to?
Somewhere in the back, a pot of coffee was brewing. Thank God. I B-lined it toward the small kitchen, my eyes glued to the tips of my toes, God forbid somebody talk to me. The squat room in the back had a pot of Folgers, a few beginner’s pamphlets, and a family-size container of Duplex Sandwich Cremes. I grabbed a styrofoam cup and poured a steaming cup of black coffee, scooped a handful of sandwich cookies into a paper napkin, and slipped a booklet that read “Is AA Right for you?” into my purse.
Somebody coughed, the meeting was just about to begin. I tiptoed the meeting room, snacks in hand, and took a seat in the back.
An older man sat down on an elevated platform and began to read the AA Preamble. “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking…”
My throat twisted into a tight knot, a mix of terror and relief. I wasn’t sure if I was an alcoholic, but I knew I didn’t want to drink that night.
“Is anyone here visiting from out of town or at their first meeting who’d like to introduce themselves?” he asked.
I held up my hand. “I’m Aly, and I’m…visiting from Texas.”
They welcomed me, and moved with the meeting. One after another, the people around me took turns, raising their hands and sharing their stories.
“I’ll have four years next week,” the man running the meeting said. A spattering of people clapped.
“I never thought I’d live to see my daughter speak to me again,” he continued. “I never thought I’d live past one day in these rooms. I just kept coming back.”
I felt a sweep of warm tears cascade down my cheeks. For a few minutes, that old, Made in China fear inside of me went quiet. In its place, something brightened, like a sharp edge nudging at my heart. Like maybe things could be different, I could be different. It felt something like hope.
A woman with a clipped haircut a few seats away raised her hand.
“Y’all have heard me share about going to the doctor, all these tests they’ve been running,” she said. “Finally got a diagnosis. Stage 4 breast cancer.”
The air evaporated out of the room.
She was dry eyed, her words both weighted and nonchalant. “I can’t do much but do what they tell me, take the treatments,” she said. “I’m not gonna drink about it tonight. I got to a meeting and I gotta keep coming.”
Here I was, 24 years old and afraid of quitting drinking because what would the band think. I always imagined a terminal illness would be the golden ticket to get wasted every night, and here this woman was. Sober. If she could go without drinking that night, maybe I could, too.
The guy leading the meeting checked his watch. “We got four minutes,” he said, and looked around the room. “Anyone here afraid they might drink or drug if they don’t share?”
I curled my toes into my cowboy boots. Ugh.
He looked to me. “How about you, Texas?”
I raised my shaky palm, he nodded to me to go ahead.
“I’m Aly, and I think I’m an alcoholic,” I said, and twisting the napkin in my lap. “It’s been three years since I last went to a meeting.”
Around me, people nodded as if they understood.
“I don’t know what the fuck to do. I’m here on tour from Texas. My band is falling apart. We have this hotel and these boxes of wine and these Germans following us and I’m so scared to go back there tonight because I know I’ll drink again,” I was crying, breathless. “I came here because I didn’t know what else to do. But I’m so sad. And I don’t know what to do next. What about when I go back? What about the tour? What the fuck am I doing with my fucking life?”
Alcohol was the thing that quieted the box of fire in my belly. The feelings that made a funhouse out of the world around me, screamed everything was bad, I was bad, and my whole life was on the precipice of going up in flames.
By the time I finished sharing, I was weeping.
Everybody clapped. The meeting was over.
“Just keep coming back,” the breast cancer woman said to me.
I got up to gather my bag, and a woman with a ponytail and jogging fleece walked up to me. “A couple of us are going to a diner nearby. Want to join?”
It was past 11pm. I imagined the Germans back at the hotel, traipsing around the room, shirtless, whipping open a third bottle.
“That sounds nice,” I replied.
At the diner, we ordered decaf coffees and soggy disco fries, and they flanked me with simple, sage advice.
“You just gotta take this a day at a time. Shit, an hour at a time,” the woman with the ponytail said to me. “What’s your plan after you leave?”
“Maybe when I get back I’ll take a bath,” I said. “Read the pamphlet I picked up until I can’t keep my eyes open.”
“Atta girl,” she said. “Just get through tonight. Tomorrow is tomorrow’s problem.”
We chatted until it was so late that there was nothing left for me to do but sleep.
At around 1am we paid our tabs and I offered to give Ponytail a lift home. But walking out of the diner and toward my car, I paused.
“This is embarrasing,” I said. “I’ve got a bottle rolling around in the backseat.”
“Honey, it’s nothing we haven’t seen,” she said and laughed.
She handed me her phone number on a slip of paper. “Call me tomorrow, we’ll figure out how to get you through another day without a drink then.”
I dropped her off feeling scared, but somehow serene. For at least that night, the path was clear.
I got as far as that one night needed to take me: I drove to the hotel. Parked on the curb.
But before locking up the car, I remembered the Jose Cuervo rolling around in the backseat. I reached back, grabbed the bottle, and stuffed it into my purse.
At the curb, I pulled out the bottle and unscrewed the cap. Paused and felt the shame wash through me. I wondered if I would regret this. Then I poured the remainder of the bottle onto a dry patch of dirt. It felt like my heart breaking.
Then I tossed the empty glass bottle into a dumpster and lugged my ass up to the hotel room.
Inside the hotel room, the band and film crew were knocked out, snoring on the floor and double beds. The case of wine lay empty, they’d finished it off. I sighed with relief. I set my bag onto the carpet and slipped into the bathroom, where I filled the tub, peeled off my leggings and dress, and lowered myself into the steamy water. I didn’t know how I would face the band in the morning, or make it through our next gig or anything else, but I couldn’t worry about any of that now. Instead, I pulled out the Alcoholics Anonymous pamphlet and read it until my eyelids grew heavy, the same way they might after a few glasses of merlot, until there was nothing left to do but surrender to sleep.
It would be my first full 24 hours without a drink in three years.
For the rest of that tour, I could only see as far as the day in front of me. I called the woman from Chicago. I got to new meetings in new cities, raised my hand, cried, made sober friends, called anyone who offered to talk before my set, after my set, on set breaks, and anytime I worried I might wander to the bar for a drink.
Those first few days, I felt like I was driving through dense fog, only able to see a headlamp’s distance in front of me. Eventually, that fog would lift, and I would begin to imagine a world and life for myself not totally weighed down by fear.
The band would eventually break up, as it needed to. We’d go our separate ways, and I’d cobble together enough time sober to write and record my second record, The Fits and move to New York City. That night in Chicago wouldn’t be my last drink, but it did plant a seed. And it left me with an important lesson that I would return to, over and over, long after I quit drinking.
Sometimes, the best you can do is to surrender to the moment immediately in front of you. That doesn’t mean giving up—quite the opposite. It means turning over the impulse to get sucked down by the memories of all that you fucked up before, and all you’re afraid will go wrong in the future. Because fear is a bitch of a forecaster—fear left me in paralysis for far too long.
What if you forgot all that, and just for this moment, brought it down to the simplest integer?
What’s the next right thing?
Thanks, once again Aly
Thank you for sharing your story 🙏🏼