What made me an alcoholic? What does alcoholism look like? For me, it wasn’t like I just started drinking one day and couldn’t stop. It started long before that with what I believe is an allergy of the body and a disease of the mind. I have a magic magnifying mind which means I can make a mountain out of a molehill of just about anything. I’ve come to consider it just an extreme form of self-centeredness. Combine the extreme self-centeredness with a bodily allergy to alcohol, and suddenly, everyone is looking at me. Everyone is judging me. No one likes me. No one is like me. Suddenly, I find myself carrying on an argument from weeks ago for hours while I drink a beer in the shower as I get ready. And the kicker is that once I put that first drink in my system, my body demands more.
I grew up in an alcoholic household. While I was growing up, both of my parents drank. And man did they party. They threw epic parties. They had a polka party one year, where they turned our garage into a polka hall and they hired a polka band, and there were two kegs, and people spilled out of our garage, down the driveway, and into the street. And, as a shy young kid, I watched my parents throw these epic ragers, and I wanted to be like them. I remember thinking, I want that. I want that, for sure.
I had my first drink at fifteen. I was running around with a little nerdy group of kids. One of the boys in our little pack could grow a beard and so, one night, he bought us a six-pack of Bud Ice. Three of us were excited to drink and so we split the six-pack three ways. I had two beers. I blacked out. I loved it. What I really loved was who I became when I drank. I loved that during the day I was this straight-A, goody-two-shoes student, but that when I had a drink, I was funny. And I fit in. And, in the beginning, people wanted me around. It was magic and it felt amazing. And once we got started, I couldn’t understand why we would ever stop.
In my late teens and early twenties, I started to do some journaling. I still have these journals and I call them my “death journals.” I would go out and drink, then come home and start writing. I would start out writing in pen and the words flew across the page. But, inevitably, the pen would run out of ink. So I would grab a lip liner and, eventually, I would reach the edge of the page, but then, instead of just going to the next line, I would just turn the journal 90 degrees and write down the margin, trailing off, with some drunken stream of consciousness thought. Every once in awhile, I have a look at those journals. They’re sad. My thoughts were consumed with, What’s wrong with me? I’m so sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I can’t fix this. I don’t know how to fix this. It’s just, like, page after page of the same thing.
If my death journals taught me anything it was that, subconsciously, I knew that alcohol wasn’t working for me the way that it had worked when I took that first drink. And I was pissed. At the beginning of the night, alcohol would make me feel like I belonged; like I was a part of the party. But, the end of the night was a different story. By the end of a night of drinking, I would find myself at some house party with a bunch of people at three in the morning. And I would look around and see that everyone was either passed out or making out, but I’d still be up, by myself, with a bottle of vodka. Thinking, well, those guys are losers. I can’t believe they’re missing this. There’s still vodka left in this bottle. Because alcohol was all I could think about. It was the center of my universe. And it was terribly isolating, to end up alone, with a bottle, night after night after night.
And of course, all this time, my life was in session. When I was eighteen, my mom took a drug overdose that kills almost two-thirds of the people who take it. As a result, she ended up in treatment and got sober, and today she has twenty-one years of sobriety, which is amazing. She and my dad got divorced. And I watched my father drink himself to death. His alcoholism was different than mine. He was a maintenance drinker, and he became chained to the bottle. Cocktail hour started at 4:00 p.m. at our house when I was growing up. And what used to be cocktails at 4:00 p.m. turned into a cocktail at 4:00 p.m., then one at 6:00 p.m., one at 8:00 p.m., 10:00 p.m., midnight, and then up at 2:00 a.m., 4:00 a.m., 6:00 a.m. When he died, he had been sitting at our kitchen table, drinking and smoking for years—a tumbler full of vodka on the rocks in his left hand, cigarettes in his right. When we cleaned out the house, I looked at the table and realized that he had worn away the varnish on our kitchen table in the shape of two arms. And that is a visual that I’ll never forget.
My dad died when I was twenty-eight. By thirty, I had decided I didn’t want to be married anymore. I wanted to live my life the way that I wanted. I wanted to drink the way I wanted. I wanted to hang out the way I wanted. So, while I did take to opportunity to choose me in that marriage, my behavior afterward was compelled by my alcoholism. As I was getting divorced, I went on one last year-long bender. And, the unpredictability of my alcoholism started to get me in trouble. In that last year, my brain would tell me, I’m getting maximized, I’m getting all dressed up, and I’m going downtown. I’m gonna go drink some Cosmopolitans. I’m gonna meet a hot guy. We’re gonna talk about art and travel. It’s going to be great. It will basically be like I’m living in ‘Sex and the City.’
Okay, so here’s the thing, I don’t know anything about art or travel. But it doesn’t really even matter because when I drink, I don’t meet Mr. Art or Mr. Travel. When I drink, I make it to the corner bar on the street that I live on. I sit down at the bar. I’m not drinking Cosmos; I’m drinking vodka on ice out of a pint glass. As I’m drinking it, I end up talking to a guy that’s been there all day. And, trust me, he also doesn’t know anything about travel or art. But the scariest part about the whole thing is that once I start drinking, I have almost no control over what will happen to me at the end of the night. And, I just don’t know where I’ll go or who I’ll go home with.
One night, I did make it out of my little neighborhood and to a bar downtown. And I did meet a guy. And we might have even discussed travel! I had several drinks with him at a fancy little spot called the Portland City Grill. The lounge at the Portland City Grill is complete with warm colors and dark wood, a great happy hour, and a baby grand that sits center stage with a piano man who takes requests. It always feels, like, so rich to be there. Eventually, Mr. City Grill asked me if I wanted to leave and I decided to get in the car with him. We drove to his house about 30 minutes away. We definitely did stuff there. But, at 4:00 a.m., I remembered something: he had mentioned that his ex was going to be dropping his kiddo off at 8:00 a.m. My mind raced, Oh my god. I do not want to be here. I do not want to be here at all. Ok. Ok. Ok. I’ll call a cab. I got my phone out and realized Holy shit. I don’t know where I am. I Google Maps’ed myself. I found some cross streets.
I called a cab, “Yeah, I’m at the corner of blah, blah, blah and blah, blah, blah.”
“Okay. I’ll be there in a minute,” the cab driver responded. Five minutes later, the cab driver called me back. He said, “I’m sorry, but the cross streets you gave me don’t exist. I don’t know where you’re at.”
I said to him, “Listen, man, I had to Google Maps myself to even give you that. I don’t know where I’m at either, and I really need you to come get me.”
He said to me, “Are you at a guy’s house?”
He said, “Most people keep their mail in the kitchen. Go to the kitchen and start looking for his mail?”
I kept him on the phone, ran into the kitchen, and started going through this guy’s kitchen drawers. And, finally, it was as if the clouds had parted and the sun shone through, “Oh my god, I found the mail!” I whisper-shrieked into the phone. I gave the cab driver the address, and he came to get me. He didn’t charge me the full price to take me home. Maybe he felt bad for me, maybe he thought I was cute. Who knows?
That was not my last experience like that. I continued to go out and to do what I wanted. I dated compulsively. I had been obsessed with OKCupid, and I had been on a date with a guy who had wanted to meet me for coffee. At the time, I thought, Ew, okay. I couldn’t understand why we would meet for coffee when we could have met for drinks. But I went and met him anyway. We were having coffee, and I was bored. When he got up to get a second coffee I said, “Nice to meet you. See you never. I’m out of here,” and I left.
I was trying all kinds of stuff to avoid getting sober, so for a while, I became obsessive about working out. I felt like; a real alcoholic wouldn’t be able to work out the way I was. So, every day, I was putting in work at the gym, and I kept seeing the same flyer in the bathroom stall. You know like the flyers that have the phone number tabs that you can rip off and take home? The flyer said, “Do you play racquetball? I need a racquetball partner. E-mail or call Cynthia at…”—blah, blah, blah, blah. Every once in awhile, I’d look at those flyers, like “God, this poor bitch is still looking for that racquetball partner.” As much as I wanted the gym and working out to be the answer to my alcoholism, it wasn’t.
I continued to build the scaffolding of my life up and then take a match to it and burn it to the ground. I thought I was doing what I wanted. But my behavior was driven by an obsessive mind and a compulsion to drink until I blacked out. It was more or less always a train-wreck and the last night that I drank was no different. But, for some reason, on 9/10/11, I woke up, and I had a moment of clarity. “I’m done. Mercy. I give. I’m done. I can’t do this.”
I think that part of the reason that happened was that it became really clear to me that there were only two options for me. This disease was either going to kill me, or I was going to get sober. All I had to do was to look at my parents. I really wished that I had more options, oh my God, did I want there to be another way, but there were only the two. I decided to give sobriety a shot. I waited for three days until I walked through the doors of a twelve-step meeting. Because I just wanted to be able to get and stay sober on my own. But on my third day without a drink, I felt like I might kill someone. That was a scary feeling – not being able to make it through three days without a drink- and it was a real shock for me. I didn’t know exactly what to do except I knew my mom went to twelve-step meetings. Desperate and scared, I decided I would give twelve-step recovery a try.
I was meticulous about finding the perfect twelve-step meeting. I was sure that if I went to one that was at a prestigious, local university; there would be no discussion of God. Religiosity, spirituality, these would not be requirements. The discussion of sobriety would be very logical. I found a meeting that I thought would fit these criteria and decided I would go.
The universe is funny. I hadn’t showered, I was chain-smoking cigarettes, let’s just say it wasn’t my best look. I walked into my first twelve-step meeting, and that OKCupid, coffee-date guy was standing at the door and greeting everyone as they came in. Yeah. He recognized me and said, “Hey, how are you?” and I responded, “How am I? How do you think I am? I’m at fucking twelve-step meeting?!?!” At that stage, I couldn’t think of why there’d be any other answer to that question. I was devastated, I was miserable, I was scared.
Anyway, I don’t know how or why, but instead of turning around and walking right back out the door, I sat down and I listened. When the group went around introducing themselves, I couldn’t bring myself to say my name and admit that I was the “A-word.” But I found myself laughing with them and nodding along when they talked. I found that the message of alcoholics in recovery was resonating with me.
Even though Mr. OKCupid had been very nice to me at the door, I decided that there was no way I could go back to that meeting. I had to find a new one. I went back home, and I consulted the Portland Area Intergroup website, in order to find a new meeting, and the next night, there was a meeting at a Presbyterian church in Mount Tabor. I decided I’d give it a try.
I went to that meeting. I was four days sober and still very uncomfortable. I got there, and there were no chairs, no lights, no people, no cookies, and no coffee. And I found myself so agitated that I thought, “OMG. I’m going to kill someone over the fact that there’s not a meeting here WHEN THERE IS SUPPOSED TO BE A MEETING HERE!!” I was pacing back and forth, I was huffing and puffing, folding my arms and stomping my feet, having a toddler-style meltdown in the basement of this church.
A woman walked by, she said, “Do you need a meeting?”
“Yeah, yeah, I do. I fucking need a meeting.”
And she said, “Well, there’s a CODA meeting upstairs.” I didn’t know that CODA stands for Codependents Anonymous. I was adamant about not belonging there, although I very certainly could have used a dose of Codependents Anonymous. But I was desperate and crazy, so I went upstairs with that woman and I sat down among a group of about ten people who were talking about codependency and its attendant unmanageability.
The previous day, I could not identify as an alcoholic. At this meeting, I was immediately like, “I’m Heidi. I’m an alcoholic. I am not like you people. You know, alcoholics are the apex predators of the addiction world. We are the great white sharks of addiction. Codependents Anonymous – I don’t understand it – you guys are like bottom feeders.”
The egotistical lunacy of the words that came out of my mouth astounds me to this day. The people in that meeting showed me such kindness and grace that day. They hugged me after the meeting. They asked if I would be Ok. They didn’t care that I was clearly out of my mind. After the meeting, a young man approached me. He didn’t try to give me his number. He didn’t try to pick me up. He said to me, “I’m in another twelve-step program, and you sound like you really need to talk. Let’s go for a walk around the block.”
I did and I went with him. We walked around the block, and he saved my life that night. He said, “Do you think you can just go home and go to bed sober tonight?” I nodded. And then he said, “Just keep coming back. Just keep trying something different,” and I said, “Ok.”
So, the next night, I needed to find another new meeting. I was frustrated and I remember thinking, “Oh, my god, when am I going to find a meeting that I can just keep going to?” It was a Friday night and I hadn’t spent very many Friday nights sober. I had a closetful of cute clothes. I decided, “I’m going to get maximized and go to a meeting.”
I put on a mini skirt and some high heels, and I went to a meeting that I’d found called Scully’s. Scully’s has a history as one of the longest-running twelve-step meetings in the Pacific Northwest. It’s an amazing place and there are a lot of really hard case alcoholics who get sober there. I had arrived on this particular Friday night all dressed up to go out and I had a really hard time finding any similarities between me and the other people there. When the meeting ended, I was on my way out and I thought, “I’m out of here. This is bullshit. I don’t need this,” and another guy caught up with me just outside the door. He wasn’t trying to pick me up. He said, “You know, you look like you are having a hard time fitting in here,” and I agreed, I was. And then he suggested that the Alano Club in Portland might be more my speed. He wanted to know if I could stay sober that evening, I told him that I wasn’t crazy about it but that I could. And he said, “Great, by the way, my name’s Mr. Angel.” After I wrapped up my conversation with him, I got in my car and headed home. Another day sober in the books.
The next day, I attended a meeting in the basement of the Portland Alano Club, and I finally felt like, “Oh, finally, I’m here! I get it.” I breathed a sigh of relief. Because I had finally found a meeting where I could hear the message of recovery and I felt comfortable enough to go back to it. The point is, sometimes we have to just keep coming back. Sometimes it’s not easy to find our way in sobriety or life. Sometimes we have to endure some discomfort in order to keep trying something different.
After I’d found my spot in the Alano Club, I put about two weeks of continuous sobriety together, and Mr. Angel showed back up. After a meeting one day he said, “Oh, hey. Have you met my friend, Cynthia?” I hadn’t. “Cynthia,” he said, “this is Heidi. Heidi, you should work the steps with Cynthia.” It was so awkward, but I said, “Okay. Are you sponsoring me now?” and Cynthia said, “Yeah, if you want to do the work.” It was a really brief interaction. She gave me her phone number, and that was that.
I had about 60 days sober, and I was meeting with my sponsor, Cynthia. We were talking about some stuff, and then all of a sudden, she looked at me and said, “This isn’t part of the steps, but you’re a pretty active person, do you play racquetball? I’ve had this flyer up for a while at my gym and I am really looking for a racquetball partner.” My Cynthia, my first sponsor in this twelve-step program that was saving my life, was the person who had been looking for a racquetball partner for years at the gym that I had been going to all along.
I didn’t know it, but Cynthia had been in my life, accessible to me for years before I had really needed her. Years before I met her and started to work the twelve steps with her and started to receive the gifts of sobriety through that work. I always think that I know what’s going on and that I can see the big picture. But the reality is, I’m doing a double-sided puzzle that’s all black, and there are no edges. I don’t have all the pieces. I don’t know what’s going on. If I let go and just do what I’m supposed to do here, my Higher Power brings me the thing I need. So that’s pretty amazing.
I could write an entirely different book about my twelve-step experiences and I hope that I have an opportunity to do so. For now, I will say, I kept going back. I kept going back to twelve-step meetings and they saved my life. They helped me to get out of my own way and to discover my true self. It was not easy, the journey of sobriety has required more courage, patience, help, and discomfort than I ever imagined. But it has made me the woman who I am today. A woman who is an available and loving partner, who does what she says she will, and who has long-term, sustainable friendships.
Heidi Busche is a speaker, author and relationship expert. This is an excerpt from her first book, Relationship Ready: How I Stopped Fucking Randos and Started Cupcaking My Soul Mate now available here on Amazon. You can also find out more about Heidi by visiting her website www.heidibcoaching.com or by checking out her IG account @honeyb52