I had just left Babeland and was heading to my car when I spotted the otter I thought might get me sober. He was in the window of the craft shop next door, waiting to be felted into being and then hung on a Christmas tree or something. I didn’t know what felting was, or even that it could be a verb. I assumed that felt, like most things, sprang from Zeus’s forehead in precut rectangles, ready to rock. Apparently not. I stood on the sidewalk, looking at the otter and contemplating all the things I could learn if I got my head right, before going inside.
I had a hopeful, sheepish relationship to crafting stores. I saw them as temples to utility and skill and the concept of having an interest in something besides drinking and worrying about drinking. Twice a year I would drop mounds of cash on yarn for scarves I imagined donating to homeless shelters, or embroidery thread for tooth fairy pillowcases I would donate to children’s hospitals. My crafting plans were always large-scale and philanthropic, partly to compensate the world for the wake caused by my existence but also because I needed a project. Some neophyte knitters might think that one scarf is a project. But then their goal is probably to make a scarf. My goal was to no longer want to drink a bottle of wine every night, and that would take more yarn. So I would set myself up with the needles and the patterns and the diagrams and spend about twenty minutes in earnest learning mode before realizing it wasn’t working. I was in fact not absorbed in my craft, and my nerves were not calmed the way other knitters claimed theirs were, and I still wanted to have that glass of Viognier that would become four. And all my new supplies would go into the linen closet among the sheets and beach towels, to the shelf reserved for optimistic variations of myself that rarely surfaced.
That said, I had not yet tried an otter. The otter might be different. It reminded me of the one Christmas season when my mother had been absorbed in sewing ornaments from felt — judiciously sequin-studded camels, elephants, and mice. My mother was often depressed and angry. My life and sometimes my safety swung with her moods. But with a project to focus on, she was cheerful, even fun. Our house had been peaceful and easy to move through for several weeks, and decades later, when I thought of Christmas happiness, I still saw a felt camel in my mind’s eye.
I browsed the store the way I once would have approached a man: in a slow spiral, staying off radar until I knew for sure I wanted to be seen. The store was a hodgepodge of tall shelves in narrow aisles, perfect for my cautious approach. Finally, I made my way to the rack where my otter’s components hung in a take-out-style box. The label said it was perfect for people between the ages of 7 and 107. That was me! I grabbed the kit, a felting block, and a needle and hit the register. “For my niece,” I told the clerk brightly, though she had not asked.
Four years later I was storing a duvet cover in the linen closet and came across my otter, still in his unmade form. I took the kit downstairs and showed my husband. “I found the otter of sobriety,” I said.
John took the box and said, “I remember this guy. Are you ever going to make him?”
“It’s hard to say,” I said. “Just looking at him makes me feel tired. Though not as tired as he probably feels looking at me.”
“I asked a lot of this otter.”
I can’t remember exactly what happened that night in 2010 to make my otter plan fall through. It was something good, bad, or neutral. We cooked dinner, or we went out. Maybe there was something on pay-per-view. Maybe I read a few pages of a book, maybe I got sad, maybe we fucked, maybe I did some laundry. Something happened to make me want to drink a bottle of wine. And wanting meant I had to. So I did.
Crafting was not my only sobriety strategy. I took a portfolio approach. Once I enrolled in a detox program where coolers of food were dropped on my doorstep twice a day. The idea was to consume no allergens, no gluten, no dairy, no sugar, no caffeine, and no alcohol for two weeks while taking “long reflective walks” (I did not do), meditating every day (did not do), and keeping a journal (dnd). I was stupefied by foodlessness and caffeine withdrawal into feeling pretty good, or at least pleasantly free from volition. On day five I remember thinking, Maybe this is the end of wanting to drink.
But then, on the morning of day six, I was standing on the back deck with my herbal tea when our golden retriever, Abby, fell over sideways in the backyard — stiff-legged, as if someone had tipped her over. It would have been funny if it hadn’t been terrifying. For a moment I just stood there. Abby was eleven, but an active senior, still driving herself to water aerobics and her film discussion group; she wasn’t supposed to just topple. Finally, I snapped to and ran to her side, yelling for John. Abby couldn’t get up, so I curled my body around hers in the yard while John called the vet. She was calm and I was, too, especially the two times it seemed her heart had stopped. “It’s okay if you’re going,” I said to her. “You just do what you need to do, baby.” It didn’t seem fair to beg her not to die, only to have her die anyway, thinking she’d upset me. And she did die later that day at the vet’s office, a few minutes before the ultrasound that would have revealed a large, inoperable tumor on her heart.
Abby’s was the first dead body I’d ever seen. She was lying on a gurney under a pink blanket, cozy and tucked in. “Oh, she looks so beautiful,” I whispered. I leaned down and kissed her muzzle and her eyes and told her she was the prettiest and best girl in the whole wide world, and at the last minute I unbuckled her pink leather collar and took it home so it wouldn’t be cremated with her. I sort of wish I hadn’t, because seeing it in my purse a few hours later was one of the worst moments of my life.
Anyway. That was day six of the detox program, and I wanted to drink a bottle of wine that night, so I did. But it wasn’t tragedy that drove my fragile flower self back to the bottle. If Abby had made it through the night, I would have gotten drunk out of worry over what the next day would bring. If she’d somehow turned out to be just fine, I would have drunk to smooth over the flow and ebb of adrenaline in my body. It’s true that my dog died and it was shocking and horrible. But most days my dog didn’t die. And I still wanted to drink a bottle of wine. So I did.
I bought and started giant books, so thick they had to be printed on whisper-thin page stock. I started A Suitable Boy four times and can report that the first twenty pages are delightful. I secretly rejoiced when I felt a cold coming on because I knew it would make me stop wanting to drink, though it really just made me want to drink a bit less. I signed up for early-morning exercise classes because I didn’t think I’d show up to them hungover, but of course I did. I went on diets and wrote down everything I ate and drank to make myself more conscious of my consumption, because I thought that if I had to really face facts, I would lose my desire to drink. Not long ago, I found one of those food lists in an old Moleskine:
Raw kale salad
½ chicken breast 1 apple, small
Seared tuna w/ wilted arugula
6 glasses Chardonnay
I didn’t understand why I wasn’t losing weight.
I asked my doctor to check my thyroid. My thyroid was fine. Blood pressure, cholesterol, liver function — fine. I had been lying for so long that my body started lying, too. “You’re healthy as a horse,” she said.
Other strategies that didn’t make me want to stop: Smaller glasses. Switching to red. Switching to liquor. Going to therapy and talking only about other things. Yoga. Running to exhaustion. Working to exhaustion. Nature. Vacations in places so peaceful they didn’t have cell signal. Puppies, rainbows, love, occasional glimpses of God in a crowd.
I did mention it to a therapist once. We got there by talking about work stress, which was linked to my propensity for taking on crushingly big jobs, which was linked to my bag-lady fears, which were linked to my impostor syndrome, which was linked to my suspicion that I was not very smart, good, or kind, which was linked to my toddler-hood and maybe infancy. “I’m slightly concerned about alcohol,” I said to this therapist. “I’m in a rut where I need two or three glasses of wine every night just to calm down from the day.” My therapist wanted to know how long that had been going on. “A while,” I said.
I worked for a company that had a reputation. Everyone in Seattle knew someone who had gotten divorced, or gained forty pounds in a year, or had a breakdown or a cold that turned into hospital-grade pneumonia, or just turned hollow and brittle and paranoid. So it was easy for even skilled therapists to make false assumptions where my employer was concerned, especially when their patients were chronic and talented liars.
My therapist frowned. “That’s a lot night after night,” she said. “You probably could go on for the rest of your life like that, but I don’t think you’d want to.”
I shook my head. “I definitely don’t want it to become a pattern,” I said. But inside I was Ginger the dog from that Far Side cartoon, hearing only “You probably could go on for the rest of your life like that.” Oh, how I loved her for telling me nothing had to change, that I could go on with my “two glasses” a night forever! I drank my bottle with a light heart that night.
I saw a psychic who smudged me with sage and told me things about myself that made my neck prickle, but she didn’t mention my drinking. I saw a hypnotherapist who tilted me back in a puffy recliner and put me in a trance. I did 108 sun salutations on the darkest day of the year to bring some light back to my soul. And nothing made me stop. Because I didn’t want to stop drinking. I wanted to stop wanting to drink. Because then the stopping itself would be as easy as avoiding spin class or olives or pointy-toed shoes or Ryan Reynolds movies or anything else I didn’t like.
In the end, the way I stopped was by stopping. I woke up one Saturday in June with a wine headache. My husband had left before dawn on a business trip, so I lay alone in our king-sized bed in the miserable sunlight contemplating a whole day having to move my head around on my body, and something in me said, “Okay. Okay, I get it.” Suddenly I understood that what I wanted was no longer important. I would just have to wait and hope that eventually I would want something else.
I got out of bed and took Advil and went to Pilates and then met my friend Mindy for lunch at a hip new barbecue restaurant in a hard-to-get-to, harder-to-park-in corner of town where we proceeded to eat salads with no barbecue elements whatsoever. She had most of the dirt on me, and she knew I wanted to cut back. But that day, when she asked about my plans for the evening, all I said was “Relax and enjoy the quiet, I guess.”
“Isn’t it amazing when husbands go out of town?” she said, and I agreed that it was pretty great.
It was, in fact, lucky that my husband was out of town that day because I wanted to face this alone. I had read about the “pain cave” that ultradistance runners go into, and I had also seen Trainspotting and Drugstore Cowboy and Jesus’ Son and all the other heroin movies. I didn’t expect to face any kind of physical horrors, but what awaited otherwise, I didn’t know. Many nights I had tried to wait twenty minutes between wanting a glass of wine and having one and almost always failed. So that was my starting point: I was a grown, multi-degreed, loved, moneyed, professionally powerful woman who did not have the strength to wait one-third of an hour before having a drink. And all the therapy and hypnosis and diets and Reiki (did I mention the Reiki?) hadn’t helped.
But the difference was that I’d been trying to kill the want. And now I was just saying no to it.
Still, I thought it might get ugly and was glad to be alone to gut it out. I kept myself busy all afternoon, and when I finally got home, I was girded with magazines and chocolate and ideas for movies to watch and everything else you bring your friend when she breaks up with her boyfriend. I hunkered down and waited to fall apart.
Things were fine until around 9 p.m. when I would normally decide to have one glass of wine. I was loading the dishwasher when I noticed the time and then, on cue, the wanting. My heart beat in a creepy, sloshy way. I put down the plate I was holding and leaned against the butcher block and then slid down to my haunches, because why not? If I could have, I would have liquefied the flagstone tiles, buried my feet in the muck, and remade them around me to hold myself to the earth. Think of all the times you haven’t had something you’ve wanted, I told myself. Houses, jobs, men. A Jean-Paul Gaultier clutch that snapped together with brass knuckles. A happy childhood. I’d missed out on all these things and lived. I could lose this and live, too.
I stayed low for another minute, crouched down on my kitchen floor, feeling sorry for myself over the clutch and the houses and the people who’d failed to fall in love with me even though I was clearly amazing. The self-pity calmed me down enough to eventually rise back to counter level and finish loading the dishwasher. It was 9:15.
How did I spend the rest of the night? I walked around my house looking at stuff. I went up to the third floor and looked out the window where we could see the Space Needle in winter, when the trees were bare. Now it was June and the leaves were on the trees, so I looked at the leaves. Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle book was open on the sofa and I flipped through it for a minute, but it was kind of gross, so I put it back on the shelf and had dark thoughts about my husband’s taste in art.
On the second floor we had a collection of small Czech pots and vases that my in-laws had given us over the years. I picked them up one by one and examined the signatures and dates etched on their bottoms. Sixty years ago, people in gray postwar Czechoslovakia had made these beautiful, nominally functional little vessels by hand. They must have been brave, focused, sober people, I decided. Unlike me, they must have had purpose and stout hearts and belief in the future. Unlike me, they did hard things and ate sensible foods and slept heavy as sandbags at night.
I stood in the hallway comparing myself to the great saints of mid-century Czechoslovakia for a while, and then I went into the bathroom and practiced doing a smoky eye.
That’s how the evening passed, the first of my sobriety—with wandering and wanting and saying no. I had expected to be wide awake all night, but by midnight I was exhausted.
I slid into bed and lay on my side thinking about the night. It had been manageable, I realized. Manageable was beyond my wildest dreams. Managing was something I could probably do two nights in a row. As for how people managed not to drink for millions of nights in a row — thinking about that made my heart flop around, but I assumed it was a matter of skill and practice. I had once not known how to manage an emergency, or a difficult meeting, or a home renovation, and now I did. Maybe I could learn to subvert my own wants the same way — with processes and contingency plans and occasional meltdowns.
On the nightstand was a matte blue Czech dish for my lip balm and earplugs. I reached over and touched it now. I can be like you guys, I thought. Stolid and Soviet. Not once did it occur to me that my wants could be transformed. Faith was something I told other people I had in them. But toughness and will I understood. Grow up with nothing but a few sequined felt camels standing between you and your mother’s anger, and you will be tough, even if it looks to others like fear. I knew I could be tough for a very long time.
I slept for ten hours and woke in a greenish rainy light. Outside the trees were fretting in the wind. I lay still in the middle of the bed, feeling suspended in my own body and wanting nothing but what had just happened: to make it to my second day without a drink. You have a whole morning ahead, I thought. You can do anything.
From Nothing Good Can From This: Essays by Kristi Coulter. Forthcoming from MCD × FSG Originals, August 2018. © 2018 by Kristi Coulter. All rights reserved.