Rancho Cucamonga

When I return to Southern California, to the inland empire, I feel at home. In my body. It’s not an emotional thing. It’s not a relief. I just remember it. The air. Dry and warm. Soft even, with smog. Air that burns your lungs in the summer. Where you have to stay indoors. Where you can’t see the mountains in July.

On days without smog, usually in the fall, when there’s wind, there’s a hush to the inland empire. Rancho Cucamonga, my hometown, is a suburb where no one walks. Everyone drives. And sometimes, no one does. If you take the right streets. If you drive out in the evening, the air orange and pink and green.
I went to a meeting in Cucamonga a few months ago. I never drank when I lived there. And I had never been to a meeting there, except once, in high school, for my sister during her 51-50 lockup at the hospital.

The meeting was like being at Walmart, in the way everything in the suburb is. But it was also like being at home. Like a homecoming. Like I had returned. I looked around the room and people were like people I knew. Family members. Like people from high school. They talked a lot about their jobs.  It felt strange because it felt permanent. It meant that my being in recovery was real life. This was as real as driving down Church St. at sunset when I was 17, with the windows down, feeling free and wanting more of it. This was as real as writing in my room every year of my life. As real as everything that I ever did or experienced or struggled with as a kid. I was in recovery. Even in Cucamonga.

I remember my sister’s Corolla in high school. How it smelled. Like chemicals. Like someone had been smoking speed in it. I remember sharing a math class with her because I had skipped ahead. Her sitting behind me, because it was alphabetical, showing up and then not showing up except once, when she came and late and sat with her hair covering her face and her forehead on her desk, the whole class and no one said anything about it.

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Before I went to rehab, I went to AA to hear people’s stories. I would listen to people who ended up homeless, all of their “yets” having by then transpired. They talked about shooting up under a bridge, selling themselves, living outside by the park, where the cops didn’t bother them, all of their possessions laid out on a blanket, the rain falling lightly at first, then substantially, soaking them all. They talked about being far from where they set out to be.

I would start my own brief shares with caveats like “I’m dealing with a lot of trauma from my childhood.” And I was. I’d talk about being confused. About feeling my feelings for the first time. I was trying to explain why I drank until I could no longer see, why I drank when I didn’t even want to. Why I eventually crossed the line into hard drugs, one of my “yets,” only in order to wake myself up out of a blackout before it was too late. Why, after doing so, I still drank more. Why I woke up in hotel rooms with blood dripping down my face and onto the white sheets, so far from where I ever wanted to be.

In the story we read tonight, at the meeting where I serve as secretary, a woman describes being told, after posing many hypotheses: “That’s not why you drank.” It’s possible that she could have said anything and still received that response, and possible that no one thought it helpful to take time to validate her experience, but it is wise. They were saying she drank because she was an alcoholic, because she was compelled to, because it was written in her DNA, in the stars. She drank because she drank. In that story, she does not mention feeling hurt or defensive in that moment. Instead, she believes them, as if it was an undeniable fact and she was relieved to know it.

When I said that I was confronting how my dad treated me when I was younger, and that this was a challenge for me in recovery, and people told me things like “You’ll get over your dad stuff” or they shared their experience with forgiving their abusive parents, with all but a nod in my direction, I did not feel like the recipient of some wonderful revelation. I felt hurt and defensive. I thought: if people can assume that they know what forgiveness means for me, or trivialize my past by saying I should get over it, then maybe this was not an organization to which I wanted to belong.

Now, a year and a half sober, I’ve come to realize that those people talking about my dad were being kind and helpful, were people who had seen trauma soften and change, who had felt it sober for a long time. They weren’t saying: Get over it. They were saying: Eventually, it will not hurt you anymore. They were saying: You can be free. They were saying: that’s not why you drank.

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I went back to Minnesota last week, to visit the treatment center I went to a year and a half ago. When I was in treatment, it was April and it was still snowing. All the branches were bare. In September, the weather is warmer, but more unpredictable. Last week, it was warm and sunny. The trees were full and turning. I drove out to Eden Prairie, a suburb of Minneapolis, where the treatment center was having its weekly open meeting.

This was my second visit since being a resident. I visit it with a reverence, like a memorial or a museum. When I walk in, I recognize it immediately. The smell and feel of it. It’s a sense memory thing, like visiting the house you grew up in. I looked at the benches, the volleyball court, the vending machines, and remembered being there under different circumstances. I remember crying on the phone at night, gasping and choking. The phone that I had to have the staff dial for me and on which I could only talk at night, for a limited time. I listened to a Sia song called “The Moon” where she sings of two ships passing in the night. I played it over and over. Everything in my life was two ships passing in the night. Me and every person I knew. Me and myself. Drinking and not drinking.

I was with my friend Chris, who had gone to treatment with me. There were 80 or so people at the meeting, some current residents, some alumni, some random AA members from the community. Chris knew most of them, from other meetings in Minneapolis, or from treatment itself, since he was there three times as long as me. The secretary asked everyone with over a year of sobriety to stand, to show that it’s possible. Of the 80 or so people there, only Chris and I and one other guy stood. I never in my life thought I would be one of the few people to stand. I never before thought it was possible for me to stop drinking for that long. For a while, for a long time, I thought that I would probably drink after I had a year sober, or after I broke up with my boyfriend. First one of those things happened, and then the other, and on both occasions, I went to a meeting. I didn’t even think about it.

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I went to Cancún, Mexico 3 months out of rehab. I had booked the trip with my boyfriend and two friends, impulsively, and there were no refunds. It was low season for tourists, or rather, it was not spring break, so I figured it would be easy. I told myself to enjoy it: a vacation without alcohol. We were offered tequila pretty much everywhere we went.

I often think about Cancún. The tropical heat of it. The beach. Walking out to watch the thunderstorm at night. My friend trying to capture the lightning with a disposable camera. Taking the bus out of the hotel zone and getting off downtown. The semi-abandoned and abandoned buildings. The meeting room, on the second floor, with a view of the city’s sprawl into the jungle.

The meeting was in a mall called Plaza Nader that was either out of business or rarely used or closed by the time I got there. I went every day, even though I regretted missing the sunset with my boyfriend at the hotel. It’s something that would come up for me again and again – the feeling of missing out by being in recovery. The tradeoff was real at the time.

There were white marble tiles with pink veins, cut out like bricks. There were about 10 ex-pats, living in Cancún, and a few tourists like me, so the meeting was in English. The first time I tried to find it, the building was locked. I walked around back and a man was standing there, smiling at me.

“What are you looking for?” he asked.

“The meeting?” I said.

“Weed?” he asked. “Cocaine?”

“No,” I said, and laughed, and continued looking until I found a side entrance. Wondering then, and the next day, and for a long while in different ways, if I should have gotten some weed for my friends. Wondering what that would mean.

The stories were intense. A man talking his friend down from suicide, asking him to hand over the whiskey and shotgun. The machete. Another who ended someone’s life in a blackout, while driving, having no idea until the police came to tell him. People coming and going from treatment. Me, with my resort wristband and sunglasses, listening until the last day, when I spoke.

I was uncomfortable, still wanting distance from everyone I met in any meeting, still coming mostly for the stories. I resented people reading the steps who could barely read. I still got annoyed when people rambled, off topic. I judged a guy for talking about relapses as if they were a given, beginning his share with “Every time I go out…” I still winced when people cheered for cake.

When I spoke, it was of blackouts. At 3 months sober, they were my best reminder, my best reason not to drink. The man with the hit and run spoke to me after, commiserated. In one of the last months of my drinking, I woke up having no idea where I parked the night before. It was something I had sworn I would never do again and something I had done so often since swearing so, that I couldn’t pretend it would stick if I swore it again.

Despite the intensity, I remember most the community, the connection. I remember the bus out of the hotel zone, the view. I remember Johnny, staying sober, trying to find the money for his light bill. I remember slipping an envelope with his name on it, with a hundred pesos, under the door before the meeting. The mall at Plaza Nader that was never quite open and never quite closed. The marble tiles. That anchor for me there, miraculously, amid the offers for tequila and weed and cocaine.

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I talk about gifts of sobriety now. Sincerely. I’m that kind of person. The kind I imagined and despised at the outset. For no real reason. Or because I did not know they were being sincere.

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why not

The question my sponsor asked me on Tuesday, that he’s asked me before, was: why not? Why not put sobriety first? You haven’t even tried it.

I broke up with my boyfriend a few weeks ago. When it first happened, my friend in the program said “Throw yourself into service.” And I looked at her, puzzled. I knew her before the program and I couldn’t believe she was giving me the AA talk now. More than that, I was confused by the advice itself: How is that even possible? Who does that?

I’ve done it, in part. After I had the talk with my boyfriend, I went to a meeting. I talked about how grateful I was that I could go there now instead of drinking. That it could feel natural. How, a year or two ago, this would have felt so devastating. It would have been terrifying. Now it’s just sad and it’s just what’s happening. Because of recovery and all the forces around it and inside of it – my rehab, the people I’ve met, the stories I’ve heard – I have gratitude now. I have self-confidence. I am able to assign things their proper weight. Showing up to meetings is service in itself, to the newcomers who hear what’s possible. But it’s not what my friend meant.

Before my sponsor said why not, he said I sounded dry, meaning I was not drinking, but I was not in recovery. Dry means miserable. I was surprised. I cried.  I thought I was getting better. I wrote once about many levels of actions and many levels of understanding. I believed in it. I did not feel miserable.

But, I did not feel happy, joyous, and free. I did not feel spiritual. I felt very serious. And, when your sponsor tells you something, you’re supposed to listen. If you’re honest with yourself and everyone, you can tell if they’re right. And he was. I could tell at least by the fact that it shook me up.

The thought that occurred to me after I met with him was this: fuck it. I saw my whole life shrinking and spiraling away from me. I saw my bleak future of meetings and mediocre achievements. Everything blotted out by my handicapped need to stay in AA. And in that spiraling was the evidence of what he was saying. My rejection of it confirmed it. My forgetting what recovery had done. My forgetting what believing in “fuck it” had done. I was dry.

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Long Beach, CA

I walked down the middle of the street with my friend, who I think of as my brother, who I used to live with, in college, when I started drinking.

We were walking slow, because he had just had knee surgery the week before. It was warm in the Southern California evening in a way that I remembered, but was no longer used to.

“Can you imagine this same scene?” I asked. “You and me, walking down the middle of the street on Saturday night, eight years ago?”

“We would’ve already been wrecked,” he said.

We passed a group of college kids, from Long Beach State, playing flip cup in their front yard. They were all beautiful. They were all singing the same song.

“We would have definitely been talking to them right now,” I said.

I was missing my youth. I was remembering what it meant to be 19 and free from my past for the first time, at least physically, at least when I was drunk, at least for a while. I remember 20 people at my house, all of whom I considered close friends. I remember dancing. Keg stands, beer pong, shots. Everyone singing the same song. I remember, too, waking up places where I did not intend to be. I remember dropping out my window, after everyone else had gone to bed, and walking to the highway, in a vest and sandals, sticking my thumb out.

We walked to a restaurant on 2nd street. The sunset orange on every piece of glass. Southern California like it used to be. Like I remembered. Before I was gone. Before I became a visitor.

I went to a meeting the next day. It was a rough crowd. And sweet, too. And sincere. People who had seen darker days than me. A man, about my age, was a beer snob, then a home brewer, then someone who didn’t leave his garage. A woman waited for her ex to get out of prison, wondering what to say to him to make him leave when he’d come, she knew, knocking on her door. One woman said “We do what’s good for us today. Ain’t that something? I couldn’t imagine doing something good for myself when I was drinking. I fantasized about doing something good for myself, but I couldn’t get past that liquor store…”

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