A Sober State of Mind
by Christie Grotheim
The words wonderfully, terribly aware came to me in bed one night as I searched for sleep. I thought the phrase would make a beautiful line in a poem, and then my neurotic brain wouldn’t let it go, not until I’d completed at least one full stanza, like a self-imposed homework assignment at two a.m. that I had to complete before I was allowed to drift off. The poem wasn’t as brilliant by the light of day, but the line stayed with me, and I thought to myself that if anyone were to ask me what it feels like to be four years sober, this would be my answer. Oddly, no one has asked.
In four years no one has asked me, and in fact, friends rarely mention my sobriety at all. Whether people think bringing it up will be rude, kill the mood, make me uncomfortable, or make them uncomfortable, I don’t know. The only person I really discuss such things with is my husband, and even then, I realize now, I have been the one to bring it up. He will listen and offer encouragement, and these conversations usually lead to philosophical musings and interesting observations.
My friends in AA would get the sentiment. I’ll have to store it away for an inspired contribution when it’s my turn to share—I’ll make it sound natural, not contrived—like I’ve just thought of it—the next time I attend a meeting. But I haven’t been going to meetings.
When we first moved to Nashville, I tried to attend one meeting, an agnostic meeting like the ones I frequented in NYC. But when I arrived, the building was boarded up, there was no phone number to call, and when I called the AA hotline I was told by a friendly old-timer that there were no agnostic AA meetings in the state. “Wish there were, I really do,” he chuckled, “but you’re living in what’s known as the big ol’ brassy buckle of the bible belt.” Indeed.
When the whole country shut down during the pandemic, I attended a few of my NYC meeting via Zoom, and it was wonderful to connect with kindred souls. But I rarely go to meetings these days because I realized that since leaving Manhattan there is much, much less temptation.
I’m not at house parties, surrounded by beautiful green wine bottles crowding every inch of flat surface, creating miniature cityscapes erected throughout the apartment, glass beacons gleaming in the light. The booze was always a focus for me, when I was imbibing and then when I wasn’t, first drawing me for that initial generous pour, and then still demanding my attention in my very effort to ignore it, alcohol always a glimmer in the corner of my eye.
Then there was the challenge of mingling with slurring, swaying partygoers—my friends—knowing the irony that I used to be one of them—one of the worst of them. Their drinks would slosh and spill out of glasses held at dangerous drunken angles, the wonderful aroma hitting my nose as people lean in too close, making my mouth salivate while somehow my throat feels too parched to swallow. They’d sometimes ask me to hold their wine while they lit a cigarette, giving me a whiff so strong I could practically taste exactly what I was missing. Living in the city sober, I didn’t realize how many concessions I was making for others at my own expense. I see in hindsight how exhausting it was.
Here I’m surrounded by nature, and she is a different kind of temptress—equally alluring, but soothing rather than stress-inducing. She calls me outdoors to calm me, allowing my eyes to rest on 360 degrees of green, grounding me in her mounds and folds, nestling me under her dappled branches, and I understand why she is called mother.
Nature is a kind, gentle teacher who leads by example. Drinking is a human invention. Songbirds, butterflies, great blue herons, horses, deer, don’t get wasted; they live every day in the here and now, in the present, fully alive and fully aware, relying only on the senses—and a brain that doesn’t overthink things—for their sense of purpose, for their every joy, for their very survival. You don’t see the groundhogs day-drinking. You do see them sunning themselves, stretching out in the grass of standing with chests out toward the sun, eyes closed, basking in the warmth.
Since no one asked—and you were probably just being polite—I will tell you straight out how sobriety feels.
For the first year of sobriety you will be terribly aware: of something taken from you, removed, something that you rely on like an organ that is missed like a phantom limb, mourned like an old friend. You are painfully present through hours of intense boredom and restlessness, routines broken, new ones not yet invented, trapped in what is, in fact, a perfectly normal, unaltered existence.
You will want to crawl out of your own skin—to sneak out to the corner bar!—but you need this soft shell, because what lies beneath it is even softer, oozing and raw and vulnerable. And you can’t yet shed that skin because you fear there will be no substance underneath, as you no longer recognize the stranger inhabiting it, who is as lost as the teenage version of you from twenty-five years ago before you started drinking. But you will rediscover her and you will find you like her personality. This phase might last a year.
Then comes the excruciating, painful awareness of the past, the intense sadness, loneliness or trauma you were escaping in the first place. You are forced to exist with the stone-cold reality of it every day and look your demons directly in the eye—the dark demons that were hiding behind the debauchery-loving demon of the drink. This process will last for two years and require therapy. And then you will find a sense of peace.
After you’ve dealt with the past, you will still be terribly aware of what’s happening in the present, because day to day disasters and disappointments will continue to happen: illness, family discord, arguments, rejected manuscripts, vehicular breakdowns, while horrendous things are happening around the world like pandemics and mass shootings—and these stressful incidents and atrocities will continue occurring, simultaneously, until death. Multiple emotions will be attached to each of these occurrences that you will be forced to feel, and you will learn to breathe through them one by one.
Because nature is a kind, patient teacher, showing you that all things pass. Savage thunderstorms roll across the land wreaking havoc and you see trees whipped and beaten to the point that you are amazed the roots hold. More miraculous is that even the thin stems of dandelions don’t snap. You are inspired by this. You don’t know where the birds go. But you notice how quickly the feathered and furry creatures come out again when the downpour lightens up to a sprinkle; they don’t even wait for the rain to stop because they trust and know that it will.
You will watch the flora in its endless cycles and see unstoppable growth. Vines of honeysuckle spread their tendrils and scent on everything in its path; mushrooms feed off of death and decay. Being a city girl, you couldn’t fathom that the flower beds you planted would bloom multiple times a summer in waves and waves of violet and blue, then wither and disappear, only to be reborn the next spring, bigger and bolder and brighter.
Eventually you will notice that the new awareness you’ve gained has a flip-side. That it can be magical. The irony is that at first you won’t perceive it because the transformation is so gradual; it will sneak up on you. You are too busy seeing things in new ways to notice. Too stuck in the details—studying a butterfly wing—to pull back and see that your entire perspective has changed. That you have crawled out of your cocoon and become wonderfully aware.
And then one day you will find yourself sitting in a sunbeam, bursting with a joy that is the purest you’ve known. Perhaps you’re happy with your life, or happy to be alive, or appreciating a moment. Or all of these things. The joy feels fuller, in contrast to embracing harsh realities, probably, and also in spite of them. It’s because you are capable of suffering and grieving, of working through anger, of feeling a broader range of emotion, making you a more complete and full human being. You find your relationships are more genuine. You find that your laughter is more sincere.
Now the idea of relying on drug-induced laughter seems a little sad. You look back on the pockets of time you have no memory of, lost hours, hazy conversations, mysterious events, fuzzy recollections, and you want to always be fully present, you are so thankful to be fully present.
I am currently trying to teach myself how to sit in silence, in stillness, when nothing at all is happening. Except in nature which is always happening all around me. There have been a few times when I perch myself on our picnic table near the edge of the woods at dusk and hear a crunching and crackling in the forest—and I follow the sound with my eyes to see two or three deer frolicking in the woods, nearly completely camouflaged in dappled light. I feel so lucky to have happened upon it! When in all likeliness it happens every day, but most days I am far too busy to notice, too loud, interrupting the rhythms of the forest by calling the dog in a repetitive, high-pitched, probably terribly annoying human voice. Stomping around, hauling things, bustling about doing chores that I rush back inside to check off my to-do list.
Learning sometimes not to do and just be is still hard for me. But when I allow myself not just to slow down but bring myself to a complete stop, that is when I am often bowled over by beauty, floored with gratitude, dumbstruck by love, awestruck by a sense of belonging.
Maybe people don’t bring up my sobriety because they think it will embarrass me. It really does not. In fact when I meet new friends here and entertain at the house or go to someone’s place for dinner, I usually casually disclose in an email as we’re firming up plans, often on the second or third meeting, that I’ve been sober for four years, so I’ll drink coffee or provide it. I like this because it tells them right away, directly, the reason I don’t drink. It keeps people from pushing a glass of wine on me all night, from thinking I don’t drink for religious reasons, or that I’m some sort of goody-two-shoes. I want them to know I have had a full life that was exciting and dangerous and wild. Because I have. At times I do miss that other life, but it had a dark side, and besides, it’s a life already lived. I guess I want them to know I’m proud of my recovery. And also that it feels really, really good.
About the Author
Christie Grotheim’s debut novel, The Year Marjorie Moore Learned to Live, was published in 2019 by Heliotrope Books. Her stories have been featured in Salon.com, The New York Observer, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, West View News, TravelMag.net, and Petrolicious.com among others. Christie is co-curator of Crystal Radio Sessions, a monthly reading series in Manhattan’s legendary KGB Bar, and is in hopes of hosting a sister series in Nashville, where she has recently relocated with her husband Niklas and her beloved dachshund. When she’s not hard at work on her second novel—with pen in hand—she can be found with crowbar, nail gun, or power drill in hand, working with Niklas on renovating their fixer-upper, hammering away at their dream of opening an artists’ retreat in 2022.