Pennsylvania Avenue

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This week, I had lunch with my college friend Emilie. Emilie is a book buyer at East City Books, an independent bookseller on Capitol Hill. We were talking about addiction memoirs and she asked me if I knew Leslie Jamison. Jamison's 544 page tome is called "The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath." Billed as part "memoir, cultural history, literary criticism, and journalistic reportage," I have been eagerly awaiting its April publication date.  

Emilie pressed Into my hands an advanced reading copy. It was like Christmas.

Current dumpster fire politics aside, my feelings about DC are deep and wide. It is the city where I began drinking in earnest. The year was 1996 and I was an intern for Senator Fritz Hollins of South Carolina. Though aged himself, he was youthful compared to Senator Strom Thurmond, the one an aide told me to "watch out for."

I wore blue polyester suits with gold buttons and pantyhose, my hair in a half-up, half down style of the 90s. I wore those itchy suits and respectable pumps while I sorted constituent letters about the telecom bill and partial-birth abortions. I also learned how to keep  pace with the Citadel cadets with whom I lived in a row house.

It was a competitive internship. At night so was the drinking.  I told the boys I had red Pat Conroy's "Lords Of Discipline" to prepare me for living with them, to which they scowled. They also did not have comment when I asked them about the recent landmark change that allowed female cadets to join their ranks. There was one thing that we did have in common, me the suburban quasi-goth stuffed in a polyester suit and them, these conservative, spiky haired boys. Alcohol. 

***

I was not a big drinker before my junior year of college and that fall internship. At least I don't remember being. That's the thing about memory -- it blurs over time. I know that if I write my book (the one I've been talking about for ages) I will have to do what a journalist does and go back and get the facts straight from other people who were there. But I remember it tasting like poison, and the vodka mixed with orange juice tasting sharp and unpalatable.

Something changed in the fall of 1996. Nursing a heartbreak that had me playing The Cure, living in a house some referred to as "The Real World" (an on point cultural reference for the time), and stuffing down my lifelong anxiety and fainting disorder (it's called dysautonomia), the recipe was not good. When the cadets brought home 24-packs of cheap beer, I drank. The taste was still horrible. 

At home during the summer in Florida, the last summer my parents lived there, I'd drank Rolling Rocks. During the day I worked as a newspaper intern and at night went swimming with my Catholic school friends. With chlorine in our eyes and alcohol in our bloodstreams, it was the last vestige of my childhood home. My parents would pack up and move to Alabama soon after and I would head to my internship in DC. 

In DC I learned to drink shitty beer and White Russians, the way that the Hill staffers did. We went to the Monocle, a legendary bar across from the Senate buildings. Here I learned to stuff myself into suits, to put drinks in my body I did not like, and to fade out of my feelings and into the darkness of an altered state.

***

In DC I had my first brown out and my first blackout, terms I didn't understand until I read Sarah Hepola's Blackout three months before I got sober for the first time. This was a full 20 years after I started to experience the devastating effects of binge drinking. In the two years since I got sober, I've started to learn more about the incredible complexities surrounding substance use, substance use disorders, and addiction, including the multitude of factors that renders some more vulnerable than others. I've learned more about what is mine to own, and also things that were not my fault. (The past six months of #MeToo have been revelatory.)

Emilie asks if I am writing my book. The book. Not really. I've been doing things other than that, the freelance writing and the family care and the self-care, to which I came quite late to the party. Then there is that tape I play in my head that says it's all been written, and no one wants to hear from me, another white girl with an alcohol problem. Emilie points out that even though the stories are similar, the voices and perspectives of the storytellers are different. 

Leslie Jamison has been compared to Sontag and Didion. I won't even show some of my clips from the last two years of my career (like the ones that made garbage disposals "sexy").  I clutch the advanced copy of her book and walk down Pennsylvania Avenue. I wonder if I can write this book. I wonder, if like Elizabeth Gilbert says in "Big Magic," that it's passed. Or has it not yet arrived? 

This is what I think about as I walk down the same street as the one where I learned to stuff my feelings, to bury them so deep. I could be a 20-year old stumbling out of La Lomita, where the server brought us underage drinkers pitchers of strong margaritas. But I am not. I'm a 41-year old mother who stuffed everything down for 20 years, who built a career out of telling stories for everyone else: the newspapers, non-profit, the magazine, the advertising agency. Slowly and slowly on this career and life trajectory, I did things that took me further from the truth.

I am holding this 544-page book stating on Pennsylvania Avenue at a new time. A time where my shame has been long punctured, and where in its place has been placed a kernel of grace for a girl who did the best with what she knew.

What is my perspective in this new landscape, the one in which a country is in the grip of an addiction epidemic? The one where more women are struggling with this thing that takes lives? This thing that tried to kill me. Where sobriety is considered a trend by some, maybe something they've already given up post Dryuary? 

I play the Cure's "Fire in Cairo" and clutch the book. It's like I'm 20 again, but know a few things and have the grey hair to prove it. 

 

***

The next day I meet my friend Kevin. He's the publisher of three newspapers. including the Baltimore Beat. Two weeks before he asked me to write a piece for The Beat's Liquor Issue. It was a bold move to include a story like that in an issue about, well, liquor. Here's the thing: I'm not a prohibitionist. But I do care about the stories we tell about booze. At lunch I tell him how thankful I am that he asked me to write about my project, an examination of alcohol messaging in women's lifestyle publications and brands.

I tell Kevin I don't want to be pegged as someone who writes solely about addiction and recovery. I have this whole other career, one involving writing about travel and culture and food and other health issues. But alcohol is intertwined with each of these. It's like stepping into recovery opened this vantage point, a lens through which I see everything. It has opened up the matrix I was part of for an entire lifetime.

***

Sometimes when I tell my story in twelve step rooms I tell the story about what happened the night of Bill Clinton's second election, 1996. I wore a black taffeta and crushed velvet party dress and drank unlimited free White Russians at the Monocle. I didn't know who won the election until the next day. It was my first blackout.

I drank in DC not just as a college student, but as a young woman, visiting friends and later building my writing career. No more pitchers of margaritas, it was craft cocktails and bottles of wine with friends who had made their way up in this town. Then, in the fall of  2015, with a few weeks of sobriety, I came for a baby shower, white knuckling it past the Prosecco, triggered by just the air in this town. But everything triggered me then. Now, writing this from Alexandria, I have more knowledge and sobriety.  Now within 24 hours of landing I find a meeting. 

Midweek a friend comes over. Her name is Laura Silverman and we have never met, but we feel like we have. She's the founder of The Sobriety Collective, "Where Creatives Recover Together."  She brings a bottle of elderflower and rose lemonade and I order in vegetable biryani and butter chicken and we share our stories and talk about where the recovery world is going. She's been sober for more than a decade (with the badassery of getting sober at 24). We talk about the rise of sober bloggers, podcasters, influencers: a robust ecosystem that did not exist (save a handful of early adopters). There is room at the table for all of us, we discuss.

I'm packing my suitcases to return to Birmingham. I'd like to say I've made peace with this city, but this city comes with me wherever I go. I go with me wherever I go. But I make a truce. I have walked this city's streets again. I have wandered its bookstores, consumed all of the coffee, and watched as familiar landmarks go by outside car windows.

I have made slow amends to the girl in the crushed velvet party dress from 1996.

I am thinking about my place in this landscape, this new landscape of women in recovery. I'm asking her what she wants to do. On Pennsylvania Avenue, with my nose running a bit and the light fading, I release that 20 year old with a grace that does not come from me. I stuff nothing down. I tell the truth. I walk on Pennsylvania Avenue.