My Sober Mid-Thirties and the Etymology of Nothing

Jesus on the Cross Says, “Give Me Your Nothing, and I Will Be Your Something.”

If you’d asked me as a teenager what my life would look like by my mid-thirties, I would have painted the most thrilling picture. There would be spotlights, awards shows, dreamy husbands, kids if I felt like it, adventure, and minutes and days just bursting with outrageous abundance. Let me acknowledge what you pseudo-psychology nerds are already thinking: yes, I am an enneagram seven. At sixteen, I was going to be somebody (specifically, Whitney Houston). And for as long as I can remember, I have dreamt of an extraordinary life.

On the harsh exterior of things, what God has actually done this decade is to strip me down and sell me for parts. 2019 was a weird year, guys.

As a mom of babies during my early 30s, I wrestled through every boring, ordinary second — 86,400 per day to be exact. In addition to the obvious blessings of my two beloved children, these years were characterized by tears, saggy diapers, an undiagnosed autoimmune disease, and biting solitude. I clung to Jesus but, often more so to the bright hope of 6:30pm when those same beloved children would go to bed. With a renewed sense of calm I’d finally escape into a bottle of wine and the extraordinary stories of fictional characters on TV. Then and only then did I feel I could replenish all I had poured out during the day as a full-time mom, part-time writer and editor. With a glass of wine in my hand and a murder show on Netflix, life seemed to carry possibility again, a spark, in ways I struggled to otherwise comprehend between the repetitive nonbeing of ear infections and failed naps.

Almost nine months ago, a few weeks before my 35th birthday, God gently removed that most cherished elixir from my evening routine: my Cab Sav. The Spirit had been whispering to me for several years, not condemning but tenderly revealing that this part of my life was no longer gift, it was addiction, heavy chains buckling me further and further down. What was once okay had become something else altogether. Alcohol had served as my gateway to wonder and possibility. But as I saw things more clearly, it was actually a gradual retreat into isolation. At 6:30pm, tucked into my corner of the couch I became invisible unto myself. And that felt good until it didn’t. The descent to my personal bottom wasn’t noteworthy, except to say that God was there. His voice over this long period of time was not judgement or demand, but a quiet invitation for me to lay it all down at his feet. In the still soft moments, a persistent nudge: “What would it look like for you to get off of this path and wander to that one over there? Here, I’ll show you.” I told God I had it all under control and to JUST GIVE ME THROUGH THE WEEKEND, K? I made varying degrees of resolutions — “I’ll only drink on weekends,” or “I’ll just keep it to two glasses of wine per night.” The failure was exhausting. And God began to paint a picture for me of that other life down that different path; it was not sparse or lacking but, as Leslie Jamison has said, flickering with possibility, run wild with abundance. In my own strength, I was entirely helpless to get there. And so by the grace of God I ultimately fell to my knees in surrender. Without much public fanfare, I found an AA meeting and entered into a life of sobriety. Surpassed only by cigarettes, it’s been the hardest break-up of my life. I still sometimes lie on my bedroom floor and listen to mixtapes, daydreaming of all we had together in the good ole days.

Sobriety is having a moment right now. According to my Instagram feed, it’s the 2020 silver bullet of okay-ness. For me, however, sobriety has blessedly exposed the opposite: I am not okay. I was not okay with alcohol, and I’m definitely not okay without it. Perhaps this is why it’s most accurately called “recovery.” Becoming sober has, with ruthless fury, peeled back layers and layers of self-salvation on my part. What I discovered underneath were sadness, anxiety, and a deep dissatisfaction. And I have to tell you, all those things didn’t evaporate along with the wine — no — they stormed out of their lairs like starved and roaring dragons. The wellness influencers don’t show you that part.

On a good day, I’ll tell you that my life has remarkably changed since May 13th, 2019 — that colors are brighter and cheese tastes even more delectable. I’ll tell you that I’m more tuned into my family, and I feel more like myself than I have in a very long time. I’ll tell you that I’ve tapped into Herculean stores of energy I never knew I possessed. That I’m in the midst of a renewed wave of creativity. That I laugh more and my lupus has become more manageable. On a good day, I’ll tell you that sobriety has been pure mercy, shot over the story of my life like fireworks on the Fourth of July. And in small and often barely detectible ways, every one of these things is true.

But it’s also true that when 6:30 hits, the wine is no longer there to synthetically replenish all that was poured out in an ordinary day. Just like before, I tend to feel a pounding vacancy. A nothingness. And my inner dragons rage and fume from all the basic demands of parenthood, work, and just being a broken person living in a broken world, striving by the minute to save herself.

Needless to say, I’m still on the trek from that path to this one. Thorns abound, but hear me when I say that spring shows its buds. Nine months in, and here’s what’s happening: I’m relearning the sufficiency of grace — idling in this precious yet sometimes precarious space between ordinary and extraordinary, between nothing and the divine promise of something.

Luckily, I have priors when it comes to between-places. A few months after my husband and I began to date, we entered into a phase when we felt all kinds of big things for each other, but neither of us were ready to utter the word we really wanted to say — love — one small syllable burdened with the potential for so much hope and so much pain. Lying in each other’s arms one night, we blurted out a few silly words as place-holders for the one we could not speak. “Zimbabwe”; “porcupine”; “etymology.” We were adorable. He was adorable. “Etymology.” It means the study of the origin of a word. Where we were incapable of “love,” stuck in that devilish space between nothing and something, “etymology” — a close study of that very space — hung in the abyss.

If you’re curious, the etymology of the word “nothing” is Middle English, from c. 1600; “nothing” is derived from “insignificant thing, thing of no consequence.” As a woman in my mid-thirties — trying (frequently failing) to navigate marriage, parenthood, vocation, and sobriety — I relate deeply to the sense of no thing, not anything, not something. I lose the thing of myself almost daily. But the very spirit of etymology and the study of origin tells me that even “nothing” comes from something (see above). And I can’t help but notice that the God of the Bible has a special knack for taking nothing — things of no consequence, empty things, vacant things — and giving them consequence. Like St. Paul says in Romans 4, he “gives life to the dead, and calls into being things that were not.”

As Alex and I paused to declare “love,” that void — like a nothingness — was not a true void. In it were three meaningless words that actually signified a great deal of meaning — “Zimbabwe,” “porcupine,” “etymology” — just as in the apparent nothingness of Genesis 1, where three supremely powerful words also entered a void: “Let there be…

Into the nothingness God spoke, and from only his words bloomed a world replete with life. What seemed a nondescript, stripped down to bare, sober vacuum was actually fertile and trembling grounds for the most magnificent work of art, followed by the greatest act of love the universe has ever known. Three more words spoken in excruciating isolation, “It is finished.” In the most matter-of-fact sense, Jesus on the cross says, “Give me your nothing, and I will be your something. Give me your ordinary, and I will be your extraordinary.”

As a teenager, my reliance on Jesus was minimal. In my twenties, it picked up a bit. And as a 30-something, my need for his grace has no limits. Indeed, I am being stripped down and sold for parts. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. There is freedom in this surrender; there is wonder in this God, the mighty re-creator who knows me by name. And his daily work of redemption in me is not like a Bravo makeover; our God takes things that were dead, empty as a womb, and he gives them life.

It occurs to me now, almost nine months sober, almost nine months into 35, that nine months is the exact amount of time required to create a new life in utero — the space between absolutely nothing, and something altogether breathing, blinking, heart beating, and extraordinarily alive. And no matter if it takes nine months or a lifetime, the fragile thread from this to that is critical unto itself.

I am not okay. But every day I am seeing with new clarity the Lord’s strokes over my now-but-not-yet story, the story that precedes The Actual Story, this big and terrible and beautiful between time. There’s a different sort of spotlight than I imagined at sixteen, a dreamy husband, two hysterical kids I wasn’t planning on, adventure, possibility, spark, a luscious web of paths I’ve abandoned and taken, and then minutes and days just bursting with this strange and inexplicable and extra-ordinary abundance. Mid-thirties, I am still blessedly learning to be replenished by God’s grace instead of things like cabernet. Day after day, I’m empty hands wide open.

Here’s my nothing, Jesus: these scaly, hungry, sad and dissatisfied dragons.

And he says, “Let there be…”

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11 responses to “My Sober Mid-Thirties and the Etymology of Nothing”

  1. Jenoa says:

    Fantastic post Charlotte!

  2. Anna N says:

    Oh wow. Thank you, Charlotte. Such courage. So much love and respect

  3. Jt says:

    Very good

  4. Peter Ong says:

    These beautifully redemptive words whose arc has the lower depths where God is plucking you and bringing you closer than you can imagine. The words of the psalmist in psalm 139 resonates so deeply. “even when I make my bed in the depths, you are with me.” Thank you for incarnating that truth. Your soul is so brilliant and bright. Love you, my friend.

  5. Josh Retterer says:

    Thank you for writing this!

  6. Ellis says:

    Praise God for your courage! It will bless others.

  7. Amanda McMillen says:

    Oh I love this. Thank you!

  8. Carlos says:

    I am on day seven sober. Husband, father, teacher, coach, late 40’s. Bourbon became my way of unwinding after school, practice and everything else. I already miss it.

    • Charlotte Getz says:

      Seven days is huge, Carlos! Praying for you right now. Hope you’ve found a solid community to help lift you up in this new / difficult / terrifying / awful / beautiful / thrilling / sacred journey.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I can hardly believe what you’ve written. So thoughtfully, elegantly expressed. Im always so thankful when young people come to sobriety before they’ve spent too many years pickling their brains… My own first year of sobriety was spent mostly being angry, bored and confused. You are fortunate to already have such a deep understanding of the absolute sufficiency of grace.
    [And, funny story here: I didn’t know about your recovery. And I recently took you to task over something on social media . I was struck by how non-defensive and kind you were to me, a virtual stranger, who was being somewhat critical…. That speaks volumes to me about what kind of recovery you are in, and it also kind of drew me up short. How can I still have those Karen-like tendencies after nearly 30 years in recovery??? But yes, His grace is sufficient for all that I lack.]. Thanks so much for sharing this.

  10. […] I first became sober in May of 2019, I did so with some supernatural sense from God that there was magic in the world […]

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