Over the weekend I went to my 25-year college reunion. I hadn’t remembered how deep in the boonies this place is. It’s in the middle of friggin nowhere. There are now fake gaslights on the sidewalks and the tiny park has been gussied up, but the place is still cut off from the rest of the world. In a way this is part of its charm, but I felt its isolation even more acutely Saturday night when I went “downtown” to meet my old friends, now middle-aged, who I found throwing back pitchers and playing ping-pong at a dive-bar. I’d prepared myself to go to bars, but I hadn’t remembered just how low-bottom this town’s dive-bars were. And I hadn’t remembered how much beer these guys could put back.
Correction: how much G Herself used to put back. A lot.
I drank, I remembered, all the time. Very often, at any rate. WTF else was there for an 18- or 19-year-old to do in the middle of nowhere? We had keg parties in houses, in parks, anywhere we could. We went to the dive-bars and drank cheap happy-hour beer and anything else we could get served. I had a friend from the school newspaper who tended bar in senior year; he used to mix us this blue drink that we sloshed from cleaning-fluid bottles with spouts. We called it the Blue Whale—otherwise known as Windex. We drank it in shots. We played Quarters. We invented drinking games that always involved the loser chugging the beer or bolting the shot. We drank until closing time. We drank away our boredom and our daytime fear about what we’d do once we graduated.
I realized that drinking worked for me. In a way, for a while, it saved my life. If I hadn’t drunk—considering what was happening at home—I might have jumped out a window.
So. I knew ahead of last weekend that I’d be going to bars. I knew everybody else would be drinking. (They weren’t playing Quarters, they weren’t chugging beers, but everybody but me was drinking.) And I was right about all of this, and it was cool with me that they were drinking and I was not.
How did I stay sober?
I asked a young woman, a newcomer I’ve been working with, who also went away last weekend, how she stayed sober. She went to a seaside resort where she knew people would be drinking. She came back and called me yesterday, thrilled to tell me that she’d stayed sober. I could hear the clarity in her voice. She said I could share here how she stayed sober (which turned out to be the same way I stayed sober).
“I set an intention before I left,” she said.
Oh man, this is good, I love this: an intention. You don’t have to say, I got on my knees, I prayed my ass off—you can just Set An Intention.
“I set an intention before I left that I would be present for this person,” she said. She was visiting a friend who’s having some trouble. “And I asked myself what my higher power’s will for me was.”
Aha. Step 3.
But: how did she know what her higher power’s will for her was?
“I’ve done the opposite of my higher power’s will so often that I can tell,” she said, laughing. “I knew that if I drank, I would not be able to be present for this person. Or for myself.”
Exactly. I wanted to be present for these people.
Some of these people (almost all of these people) I hadn’t seen in 25 years. But from the time we started hanging out when we were 17 and 18, we were almost like family. We WERE family—we were the first family-of-choice any of us ever had. We chose to be with each other while we were working on the massive job of earning higher educations and beginning to separate from our parents. I listened to the jokes we told and heard their laughter (so strange, and so familiar), and I felt the spaces these people have carved in me, like water across the earth, and realized those spaces will always be there, forever.
Those spaces prepared the ground for others who came after them.
But some of these people, after four years, I’d left hanging. I’d left school thinking most of them were sick of me and didn’t like me after all. Some of them, I’d hurt. The last time I saw my college boyfriend, for example, was 25 years ago, and I’d picked a fight with him and left him standing in the street and just Never Saw Him Again. Which is the way I’ve left a number of people. … This guy is one of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever known. I wrote him a letter years ago to make things right, and we’re cool—and I knew we were cool—but to see him and everyone else face-to-face, to be clearheaded and responsive with these people… it was a shift from the out-of-body Wasted And Fearful Experience of decades ago to an in-body experience of the present moment. It was, I guess, like putting Humpty Dumpty back together again, with all the pieces fitting. You can see the seams and some drips of glue, but it’s OK: it rolls. It’s whole.
I sat in the bars and watched them drink good beers—Dos Equis and Corona with fresh lime wedges forced down the throats of the bottles, the foam rising up to meet the fruit (remember that?), beers I used to drink, and my mouth didn’t even water because I was present and I knew what I was there for.
It’s like what my friend C said to me last summer, before I visited my husband’s family in the UK (where they sell codeine over the counter):
If you use, you will abandon yourself, and you’ll be unable just to be present for them, which is a great service in and of itself.
C is the shit, man. So are many, many other people I’ve known who have shared how they stay sober in places where people are drinking. And it’s great to be passing it on and seeing it work for others.