Inhabiting Sobriety and Feasts of the Ordinary

My story of getting better has been sharp as a blade, and quiet as a whisper.

Charlotte Getz / 10.20.21

My children are six and eight year-old big kids. Yet at night, they still require back tickles and lullabies to doze off after a hurried and eventful day. Around 8PM and thirty minutes into reading by herself, my daughter trots into the living room and says, “Okay, I’m ready to go to sleep now!” This is code for, “Songs and tickles, please!” I’d be lying if I said I didn’t often agree to this scenario with resistance. The fact of the matter is, by 8PM I am mentally and parentally off-duty. But then a small voice urges: This will end soon. They won’t always want you. And so I surrender. We walk back to her room hand-in-hand and I crawl under the covers beside her. She turns over and assumes a little-spoon position while I tickle her back into calm. “Into my heart, into my heart, come into my heart Lord Jesus.” I pray the words over my kids as I sing them. Her breathing slows and I move into a soft rendition of “Tender Shepherd,” followed by “Jesus Loves Me,” and if I’m feeling especially inspired, I’ll close with the chorus of “Cornerstone.”

I want to keep them just like this — with me always, skin-to-skin, their smell indistinguishable from my own. Once I finish singing (they know the set-list by heart) my daughter rubs her face against my shoulder and grips my arm, as if I were her favorite blanky or most beloved stuffed animal. It’s primal. In everyday moments like this, I’m convinced that were he here, Michelangelo would have found his next muse.

Two and-a-half years ago, I could not have seen these moments for what they are: extraordinary.

When I first became sober in May of 2019, I did so with some supernatural sense from God that there was magic in the world and in my life I was missing because of cabernet. I remember sitting in my car in the parking lot of a Long Beach In-N-Out, days before I went cold turkey. The mounting shame from my failure to drink less burned hot against my palms. The windows were down and “Enter One” by Sol Seppy moved through the speakers like a legend put to song. I gazed over the desert expanse at oil rigs grinding slowly, rhythmically up and down with the San Gabriel Mountains crowning the eastern skyline; and I went over again in my mind how a life without drinking might actually play out. Everything I could envision was dull and colorless — my whole identity, flatlined. All that lay before me was as flush and dry as the oil fields across my horizon. I was terrified. I didn’t have it in me, and honestly, I didn’t want to have it in me. Then these four words in the song cornered me still: Fear not this light.

And the smallest bright question flashed across that truly sober vision, what if this thing I’m so afraid of might actually lead to light?

Three nights later — May 12th, 2019 — was the last night I drank alcohol. It’s weird to think of it like that. As if the 12th were some notable anniversary. I drank that night, allegedly, but I don’t remember a thing. Not because I went hog wild, but because it was surely a night like any other at the time: I probably nursed my red wine while watching a great show and slipped into some static obscurity. Then the 13th began my new, sober life, and I can tell you a thousand minor details from this day. Laboring over whether to brave AA, or go it alone. The friend I called as I sat outside my first meeting. The specific advice she offered that carried me through the next few minutes, and then a few more after that — the meeting itself. Curled up in my bed that afternoon watching video after video of Anthony Hopkins’ AA reflections from over the years. Being hunted like a wounded deer by this strange and ravenous despair. The tiny shard of hope that eventually broke through. The tonic and lime I drank in lieu of wine — and then crashing in bed that night like a war-torn soldier with one full day of sobriety behind me.

Leslie Jamison says in her book The Recovering, “I’d always been enthralled with stories of wreckage. But I wanted to know if stories about getting better could ever be as compelling as stories about falling apart. I needed to believe they could.”

My story of getting better has been sharp as a blade, and quiet as a whisper: both significant and insignificant in equal measure. And I can only really make these observations in hindsight, not as some heroic quest I was charged to embark upon, but a bone-dry valley I was led into by the throat.

In the beginning, everything felt shaky and undoable. I was learning how to walk in the world without a limb I loved dearly — a limb that I myself had begrudgingly severed. Maybe that’s why rehab is rehab, no matter how you’ve broken. Walk first; run later. I had to inhabit sobriety, to step into it like I was stepping into an entirely new life with new skin, new shoes and everything. I had to relearn how to exist as an ordinary person, but an ordinary person who doesn’t drink. How would I spend my evenings now? What would I do with my hands at a party, or a bar? What would it be like to hang out with my family, who drinks? What would dates with my husband be like? Or our vacations? How would I close out a hard day? How would I celebrate? These seemingly insignificant parts of life become monumental obstacles to work your way through in the early days of recovery. Two and-a-half years in, I still often stumble haphazardly from one day to the next, but there is a fortitude and peace that wasn’t there before.

When I look back at those first hours then days then months, Colossians 3:3 resonates, “For you have died…” — but thank God, it doesn’t stop there — “…and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” This verse sounds a lot like steps 1-3 of the Twelve Steps:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

Surrender in this sense was not passive, but an active laying down of self, of control, of expectations, even of my plans for my own life, over and over. It might sound straightforward, but I can promise this part was brutal. Colossians goes on to say, we put off the old self like a pair of shabby, smelly, ill-fit clothes, and we put on a new self altogether. But it’s amazing how pig-headed committed we are to those first crappy rags. Over time I realized the new self I was inhabiting was not just a shinier more sober me, but rather I had been wrapped in the robes of a Savior — like my children, so primal and close that his smell was my smell. Hidden and hemmed by that tender shepherd, he bore the pain, the doubt, the boredom, the confusion, and he carried me all the way to this place where I am today.

Where exactly am I today? Still in the daily practice of laying down my old self — of surrendering the whole of my busted and broken life at the foot of the cross — of turning my head toward grace, as if it were the sun itself. In this space I find daily glimpses of the beauty, lavish, love, and freedom of the one who made and is remaking both me and all things.

I haven’t had a sip of alcohol since May of 2019, but the general spirit of addiction and idolatry lurks in us all and still threatens me daily. Leslie Jamison remarks on this:

In his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Gabor Maté—the clinician who worked with skid-row addicts in Vancouver—compares addicts to ‘hungry ghosts’ on the Buddhist Wheel of Life: ‘creatures with scrawny necks, small mouths, emaciated limbs, and large, bloated, empty bellies.’ Their bodies are physical expressions of that ‘aching emptiness’ that drives addiction, what Maté describes as a search for ‘something outside ourselves to curb an insatiable appetite for relief or fulfillment.’”

But Maté believes this is the bent of all our hearts. He says, “In the dark mirror of [the life of the addict], we can trace the outlines of our own.”

I never personally dealt with a scrawny neck or an empty belly, but hungry ghost? Aching emptiness? Insatiable appetite for relief or fulfillment? That about sums it up. And I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t wish I were the sort of person who could drink casually and smoke a single cigarette per week. But that is not who I am. There is almost nothing in my life I have ever done with a lick of low-key. This is a common plight of those inclined toward addiction. But that same propensity to expand, embellish, and overdo also makes me the sort of person who can turn nighttime tickles into the freaking Sistine Chapel, who can see the sun sparkling through the leafy woods out my kitchen window and be completely overcome. Two and-a-half years in this particular skin, there is a blessed shalom in this new life where I must commit myself into the arms of grace, each and every day.

Fortitude, grit, peace: these are not my inherent traits. Like Zachariah, God himself has clothed me in this festal apparel. And I have lived the blessed paradox that sobriety really has made way for everyday feasts. My average hours are rich and abundant in ways that I could not experience as someone who was devoted to red wine. The plot points of my recovery aren’t compelling in a cover-story sort of way; sobriety hasn’t looked like fame, world travel, or award-winning career advancements, but instead superfluous baking, deep breathing, delighting in our two puppies, and savoring the last minutes of the day snuggled next to my kids-who-wont-always-be-kids as I sing and pray over them — small moments that will surely go down in my autobiography (and theirs?) as exceedingly wondrous.

Sarah Condon recently noted on The Mockingcast that we long for enchantment — our hearts are like flowers that turn toward the sun. Two and-a-half years ago, I’d have been blunted to nearly 70% of the enchantment in these ordinary moments, a flower turned in the wrong direction. But there is grace and magic and beauty in this quiet life. I refuse to see it any other way. And sobriety has freed me, at least to a noticeable degree, from the pursuit of some kind of altered state where I am anything but my actual imperfect self, living in this actual imperfect world. Even here there is abundance. To make dead things live is who God is. He cannot be any other way.

Fear not this light / We are of this light divine.

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