A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of Life. – Thomas Jefferson
I did something really stupid. I decided to quit drinking right before the holidays. And then, to top it off, I took a trip to Paris – a place where wine flows like the river Seine. I know – Poor Me. I’m not asking for sympathy, I’m just saying that it wasn’t always easy for someone newly sober. Fortunately, I got through it relatively unscathed and learned a few things along the way. So I thought I’d share some insights.
Hello Captain Obvious.
Early sobriety is really, really hard in and of itself. It’s perfectly okay to make it a bit easier by setting clear boundaries and staying within your comfort zone for the first few weeks. Believe it or not, the earth will continue to circle the sun whether you show up to that cocktail party or choose to stay home. You may be awesome, but you’re not indispensable.
The trip was wonderful, but it was certainly a risk in my first 90 days. I stayed sober, and I learned a lot about myself, but relapse was a very clear and present danger throughout. I had placed myself smack dab in the middle of triggerville, greatly overestimating my still tenuous resolve.
To an alcoholic mind, drinking is akin to being in a fraternity or sorority of sorts. It’s where friendships flourish, good times and laughter ensue, and troubles temporarily take a back seat to some well-deserved hedonism. But imagine being told you are no longer a member of the club. Sure, you can stand outside the perimeter while your former brothers and sisters get their party on, but you can only watch, not participate.
I found myself feeling left out and a bit resentful. The world that I once felt so familiar and at home with, was a world I could no longer comfortably inhabit. Restaurants and bars were now filled with pitfalls, parties were white-knuckle experiences, merely walking down the street could be like walking a gauntlet, with liquor on display everywhere I turned. Suddenly, I was an outsider.
Pathetic, isn’t it? Pathetic that I ever gave alcohol that kind of power. The power to control my state of mind, to dictate whether I was having fun, enjoying the people around me, and experiencing all life has to offer.
This is apparently why most people in early sobriety choose to avoid situations that are triggers for drinking. Not me though. I opt for full immersion therapy. Plop me down in the middle of Paris for Christmas and New Year’s…then let’s watch the emotional chaos ensue, shall we?
The sight of crimson wine flowing with every lunch, dinner and dessert, the sound of glasses clinking in celebration, the scent of hot mulled wine as it’s served to chilly tourists in charming outdoor holiday markets. Sure – I’ll be just fine – as long as my head doesn’t pop off like a champagne cork from the internal pressure.
I’m not sure how I managed to stay sober. I’m pretty sure it was a Christmas miracle, right up there with immaculate conception.
It also helped that I had plenty of support throughout the trip…my husband, my sponsor, my husband’s family – who made sure mocktails were readily available for me at family gatherings, and a couple of excellent authors whose recovery memoirs I devoured during my down time (thank you to My Fair Junkie: A Memoir to Getting Dirty and Staying Clean by @AmyDresner and Unwasted: My Lush Sobriety by @SachaZScoblic for making me laugh like a lunatic on the plane rides.)
I was honest with myself and others about my struggles and my internal demons both before and during the trip. I made sure eyes were on me – and not in a cool Tupac sort of way. I hated the accountability, but I desperately needed it too.
Sometimes It’s Good To Regress
In many ways, I feel like I had arrested development during my heavy drinking years. I stopped experiencing the world around me, or at least I viewed everything through the distorted prism of my addiction.
When I was a kid, I was able to experience the wonders of the world, feel joy, and handle disappointment without the influencing effects of alcohol. Somehow, as an adult, I abandoned the notion that my natural state of mind was enough.
Sure, as a grown-up I didn’t need Santa Claus. But take away my booze? Then I’d cry and carry on like a three year old who dropped their ice cream cone. For me, Christmas joy wasn’t dependant on a fat man squeezing down the chimney, but it was too often dependant on the liquid cheer that was poured from a bottle.
This year, I viewed the holidays from a different vantage point and with a sense of presence I hadn’t felt in years. It wasn’t about the parties, the food, the drinks, and the shopping. It was simpler. A collection of special, unexpected moments that I was actually clear-headed enough to appreciate.
It was sitting in the stillness of a beautiful old cathedral in Paris, smelling the Frankincense and feeling wrapped in a quiet calm mere steps away from the hustle bustle of tourists outside. Watching people as they kneeled in silent prayer, wondering what their lives were like, yet sensing a shared humanity and humility before a power greater than ourselves.
It was the tinkling of a bell as I entered the warmth of a tiny bookstore tucked away on a narrow cobblestoned street. Seeing books written by Victor Hugo and Voltaire. Feeling the thread that runs through the years, connecting the present to the past. Knowing that history happened – was still happening – right there where I stood. That sense of my own infinitesimal marker in time was oddly comforting – an opportunity to shift my perspective.
It was gazing at the masterpieces in the Louvre, the layers of expertly applied paint in their gilded frames drawing me in, and the emotions that the artist’s work elicited when they created their piece, now being experienced by me as I stood before them centuries later. It was also looking at street art, knowing that that same desire to have a voice, and to create is universal, no matter the medium. Science, literature, art, technology, architecture – glimpses of humanity channeling the Divine.
It was turning a corner and finding myself in the middle of a Parisian plaza – the delicious smell of nutella crepes being prepared by a nearby street vendor, cafe diners sipping espresso outside under the warmth of heat lamps, listening to a man on an accordian playing La Vie En Rose while Christmas lights glowed in the branches overhead.
These moments and so many more. I could not have experienced them in the same way prior to my sobriety. When I was drinking, it was always about where my next drink was coming from. The endless quest to soften life’s sharp edges and escape the constant chatter in my head always took precedence.
The problem is, alcohol drowned out the strength of my own inner voice and shrouded so much of the world’s beauty that was hiding in plain sight all around me. Now, finally – I am seeing and listening to all that I’ve missed.
Do I sometimes wish I could have a drink or two like a normal person? Of course. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. Yet I feel so fortunate to have spent the holidays in the romantic City of Light, where I stood up to my demons, and won. Yes – I was reminded of what I can’t have, but I was also reminded of all the wonderful, beautiful things I can have. What a gift it is to be able to experience life anew, re-awakened to all its magic.
I, for one, won’t drink to that.