Few things in life are more daunting than teaching an 8 am writing course to college freshmen. As I stand in front of a group of bleary-eyed students and shuffle my notes, I wonder if their lack of interest is directly related to my teaching skills or their late nights. I don’t know, and I don’t ask. I take a deep breath and dive into a lesson on persuasive rhetoric.
I am doing all of this with no alcohol in my system. For most people, this is not a big deal, as it is rather early. Most people aren’t really thinking much about wine, or the lack thereof, at this time of the day.
I am also recently sober, and everything is terrifying. I keep thinking I might burst into tears if someone passes me in the hall and dares to ask, “Hey, how are you?” I am suffering from a constant onslaught of firsts, like my recent first Friday night sober or my first trip to the store without stopping for liquor. I had my first dinner preparation without my beloved wine, which was not without some crying. Last night was my first time grading essays without bourbon. Bourbon always helped those essays, I swear.
Now, it is my first day at work without a hangover. This is a good thing, of course, but even good things fluster me. Right now, I am shaky and unsure as I stare at my students. They stare back, waiting. Everything feels very raw and awkward, like I’m on a surreal first date with a bunch of rather sullen 18-year-olds. The whole thing just feels weird.
I was not a morning drinker. This was a proud fact that I hung onto for years as proof that I was not an alcoholic. However, as I was an alcoholic, the morning thing didn’t really matter. It matters now because all this sober teaching so early in the day is really making me want a drink.
“Let’s discuss how to persuade the reader,” I say. “What’s one way to get someone to give you what you want?” I’m ready to take a few notes on the board.
The class stares at me, and I swear they all shift from one slouch to another, a choreography of apathy. We find ourselves in that academic high-noon showdown that every teacher deals with. I wait. They wait. At some point, somebody has to flinch and answer the damn question.
“You could…bargain with them?” one quiet voice finally offers, and I grab onto it as if it was a proverb uttered by the Dalai Lama. We continue with our notes and discussion and make it through. As I walk back to my car, I sigh. Another first, done. There are so many more to tackle.
Recovery is hard. Oftentimes, it means butting up against the world. Since I have been avoiding the world for so very long, this is tough. When I got sober, I did not go to an inpatient rehab. I attended a whole lot of 12-step meetings and basically forged ahead without any sort of time away from the world and all its nuisances, like people, places, and things. Inpatient recovery gives the gift of time and focus. Avoiding the “outside” for 28 days is a great start. Either way, eventually you are going to have to deal with the world, and bargaining won’t do you any good.
Now, I am dealing with it at work. The world rubs up against me with my students’ lackluster performance on their last essay cycle and with my lackluster interest in their progress. The world is there with emails from my boss, deadlines to meet and bills to pay. The world scratches at me as I stop to fill my car with fuel, and I find myself staring morosely at the Bud Light truck across from me. “HERE WE GO” is emblazoned on a beer bottle that’s perched seductively on a mountaintop. It’s all icy and invigorating, and it makes me slump. Then I head home, and the world clamors on for a working mom who does two jobs and, honestly, could use a raise in both occupations.
A few weeks into sobriety, I was co-teaching with the theater professor. We set a time to meet. Unable to find a sitter, I had to bring my kids. We were meeting at the theater, and my colleague said, “Just bring them. They can run up and down the aisles, and we’ll get some work done.” Easy, right?
I was a wreck. My kids were loud and nutty, running around, while we tried to iron out a semester’s worth of work. I sat back in one of the velvety cushioned chairs and wanted to cry. I was just so very nervous. I was panicked that this distinguished gentleman who exuded “professorial” and even wore tweeds would not be able to deal with sticky children in his space. I was nervous that my ideas for the course would seem ridiculous. I was nervous that my nervousness would be detected.
We sat high above, watching as my children danced across the stage. They were fascinated with the “theater in the round” concept of this space, a place where there are no wings and the audience has full view of the performance space. Because I am an English teacher, and I eat symbolism for breakfast, I had to smile to myself. This was how I did life. I was on stage all the time. All my entrances and exits were dramatic and deliberate. Every movement, foible or success was being watched and critiqued.
It’s no wonder I used to go home, shut the curtains and drink over it. Now I was left with only the awareness of all these feelings. Clarity can be a bitch.
The only way to survive a career, life and children while staying sober is to stop thinking of sobriety as an intrusion. Yes, recovery is work, and it takes time and dedication, but it doesn’t operate by barging in, overturning tables and uprooting my life. I had pretty much done that already. Sobriety doesn’t do chaos.
Because having a career is what adults do in general, sobriety wanted to fit right into that as well. After a while, the jangled nerves settled, my interior dialogue shut up, and I could just teach. The hangover-free, 8 am classes became a joy, at least for me. I learned to make eye contact in the hallways, banter with my coworkers, and make plans to meet for coffee and discuss curriculum. I carried my 24-hour chip with me to each class, and I placed it on the podium before teaching. That small medallion anchored me.
In short, I got off the stage, for the most part.
I did occasionally wonder if my colleagues had any idea about my momentous decision to get sober. I figured I had to be so different now that surely someone had noticed, but most people in my life were not paying nearly as much attention to me as I imagined they were. Still, worries about my reputation would bite at me. I wondered if my students knew, and my thoughts would get all tangled up in regret and shame. These worries left me feeling vulnerable and icky, but in hindsight they were pretty inconsequential. They were like that annoying anxiety dream I always get at the start of the school year. Maybe, you have a similar one? It’s the first day. I am late. I am lecturing about The Crucible, and I am also naked.
This dream still happens, but thankfully the anxiety that is packed around it is just typical stress. It goes along with the dream where I am riding a rollercoaster as it collapses beneath me, or my favorite dream, where I am performing an entire one-woman play with no recollection of a script. These nightmares are a result of an over-active imagination and too much chocolate before bed, paired with the day-to-day stress that a working mother deals with. Today, I wake up and I am so grateful because the dream stays a dream. I could not say the same when I was drinking. In that territory, dreams and nightmares stalked me whether I was sleeping or awake.
I now know these thoughts all point backward to my past. I am pointed forward now, and all I can do is keep going and let it go. It’s a better way. Not easier, or even less hectic, but better.