Sobriety is like a little car.
Picture a light blue Ford Escort, rust on the doors.
When you first sit in your sober car, everything is new. You haven’t done this before. Pedals and signals and steering and changing gears all at once? Seems about as impossible as socializing and sleeping and having ‘fun’ without alcohol.
Which is to say that it all feels quite strange.
You remove your regular coping mechanism (booze) and you’re confused, no map, not even sure how to start the sober car let alone drive it. To top it off, you’re in Maine where it is decidedly foggy and grey, and you need to drive to San Francisco where it is sunny, warm, sober, and beachy.
(I have nothing against Maine in real life; do not send me letters.)
You set off in your sober car. It may have taken a push, jumpstart, and some fuel to get you going, but you are now on the road. All of the planning to begin is behind you. All of the dithering about whether or not to go is finished.
You are underway.
Being in your sober car requires a lot of concentration. You put your hands firmly on 10-and-2.
You have no idea where you’re going, although other people have assured you that there are good things ‘coming up’. All you can see for now is despair.
You have smartly asked a sober coach to sit alongside you. She is well dressed, nice sunglasses. She needs the sunglasses because she’s been to San Francisco and she knows what it’s like. Future’s so bright, you gotta wear shades. You admire her smile. She doesn’t look exhausted. Which is to say that she looks better than you feel.
Sober coach girl gives you tips. You only have to check your rearview mirror every few minutes, she says. Move away from Day 1, leave it behind, don’t look back so often. Keep your eyes on the road in front of you. Focus on where you’re going.
She guides you to move into the left lane to avoid an upcoming difficult situation. With a light touch on your arm she suggests that you begin to brake now, to ease up, to avoid overwhelm.
You’re doing well, she sings. I know that it seems like a lot of things to focus on at once, learning to drive this sober car, but it gets easier.
The windshield wipers aren’t where they should be. You smack the horn when you mean to change lanes. You’re nervous. It seems like everyone has a drink in their hands except you. The voice in your head that says “drink now” has been there so long you didn’t realize it was coming from the Drink Now radio station, the one that broadcasts shit messages like “it’s time to celebrate, you deserve it, just have one, you don’t have a problem, here have another.”
You arrive in a new town, the weather is a bit better, you go through drive-thru and get a snack (homemade banana bread and coffee).
The sick and tense and headachy feeling has started to ease. The worst of panic seems to have passed for now.
You can see the sky is clear ‘over there’ and so you keep driving in that direction. You realize that you’re further away from Maine than you thought, and you trade in your Ford Escort with the rusted doors for a Volkwagon Golf, old model, but it’s in pretty good shape. The stereo is better. The Drink Now radio station is less clear, intermittently staticy.
A routine develops. The unknown hotels and pit stops now seem quaint. You see things you’ve never seen before, views you didn’t know existed. The waitress who drops off your tonic water, has a glass of wine on her tray that she’s taking to the table beside you. The smell makes you feel ill.
I used to drink that, you think.
In your sober car, you enter a tolled highway. The towns flick past, the landscape changes daily. There are other small joys. A t-shirt from the convenience store. A popsicle. When the Drink Now radio station is louder, you replace it with singing, with books on tape, with sober podcasts. You learn to change the channel. You regularly stop and get treats and t-shirts and clicky pencils and flip flops as sober treats. There is carrot cake. There is an early morning run in a strange town. New things.
Many days later, when you stop to get lunch (vegetarian tacos at a road side taco stand — made with roast potatoes instead of meat), you are startled to see someone who looks just like you.
Nice hair, looks well-put-together but something is off. Pale face. She stands beside her sober car, refusing to get in. Her coach is saying: you can try it, you might like it. Woman refuses. I want to walk to San Francisco my way, she says.
You think: I was just like her. I walked around the outside of my sober car for SO long, refusing to get in. I wanted better things to happen in my life, but couldn’t figure out how to travel to the new place.
Watching someone else on Day 1, you realize that — for you — there will be no u-turns, there will be no more beginnings. You want to see what happens next, the city under the trees, the one coming up, around the next corner.
You’ve done plenty of drinking research. You’ve been in Maine long enough, now you want to try something different, a period of sobriety research.
(Nothing against Maine, nice people, good lobsters, it’s a metaphor. Don’t email me.)
There is a day, sooner than you think, when the Drink Now radio station is far out of reach, and there is barely a signal. You’re on a straight road, a flat patch of land, silent prairies. Great Plains. Land so flat you can watch your dog run away for three days. Views and sunsets and things you haven’t seen in a long time, if ever. How long were you in Maine, dreaming of getting out. Now you’re here. Holy. You’re actually doing it. On your way.
You can finally drive and drink coffee at the same time. You can socialize with a glass of tonic in your hand. Driving doesn’t take as much concentration as it used to. That first part is shitty. And then it isn’t.
In a better town, the lunch counter serves tiramisu in small glass dishes. It is made without alcohol. The cake is soaked in coffee. You sigh with relief.
You upgrade your car. Blue Volvo station wagon. The one you’ve wanted forever.
It all seems possible.