• Steph Shuff

Drunk in Love

Updated: Dec 17, 2019

I haven’t always been so fearless about who I am. It is easy to look back on my life with the confidence of hindsight and tell stories as if I had planned them out this way all along. But that would be a false way to paint my life.


I stumbled into the person that I am as much as we stumble into anything else in life. Trial and error. A lot of missteps. Some time spent trying to be someone that I’m not. Failing at that. Some time spent being exactly who I am. Failing at that, too.


There was a time when I was much better at following the rules.


I was a good kid. I followed most of the rules, especially the ones that made sense to me. Traffic laws made sense. I followed them. Marijuana as a Schedule I drug? Absurd. Ignored it.


As a teenager, I wanted to follow the rules of falling in love. Meet a nice guy, date, fall in love, lose your virginity. My mom never advised me to wait for marriage. But she did advise me to wait for love. I have always been a romantic, and so I found that this was an easy rule for me to follow.


I met A.P. at a friend’s house my freshman year of high school. He was only a year older than me, but he looked - and sounded - like a much older guy. He had wide, broad shoulders, a narrow waist, a bubble butt, thick legs, strong calves. He had deep set, blue-green eyes. He had a man’s voice - even at sixteen - loud and booming and low. He played on our high school football team. His dad worked for a limo service and so A.P.’s first car was a black Lincoln Town Car sedan with deep tan leather seats and dark tint on the windows. It was like something out of a Scorsese film, that car. In a high school full of kids that all strived for sameness, A.P. wasn’t afraid to be a little different.


Beyond the athletic build, the deep voice, the gangster car, A.P. was smart. Thoughtful. Cerebral. Later in life, he would become fascinated by astronomy, and technical photography, and existentialism, and none of these interests would surprise me. He was always a deep, brooding thinker. More than anything else, we had that in common. I remember falling in love with him over the phone. We spent a lot of time talking on the phone back in those early days. I don’t remember about what in particular, but he was fun to talk to. Seduction has always been an intellectual pursuit for me as much as a physical one. Perhaps A.P. and I learned this together.


I saw A.P. recently. It was kind of unexpected. He is married now, with a little boy. He lives with his family in Utah. We went out to dinner, then we went to the beach, then we came back to my house with beers.


I should stop here and mention that I am sober now. It’s been a little over two months (71 days to be precise). These days, I watch other people drink with tepid disinterest, mingled with the lingering PTSD that remains after dating a raging alcoholic and making the mistake of traveling across the country with him. More on that story another day.


Suffice to say that I am fine being around light drinkers - the kind of people who like to have a glass of wine with their dinner. But heavy drinkers trigger a fear response in me that is hard to overstate. It’s reflexive. I can try to reason myself out of it. I can try to breathe through it. I can attempt to silence it as it crashes around in the back rooms of my brain. But the fear is there, and it is palpable, like a nightmare I can’t shake.


It’s the smell. Once I can smell the alcohol seeping from your pores, my palms start to sweat. My skin tingles. My stomach turns over in my abdomen as though I had swallowed something alive and now it is flopping around in the bottom of my belly, wriggling like a fish out of water. Ironically, the only way I can quell the fear response I feel around heavy drinkers is to drink myself. Codependency at its finest.


I am happy to be sober. The first few weeks were hard, like pushing a boulder up a hill. Every decision not to drink was a conscious one that I had to make. But then, one day, I don’t remember it in particular, I got to the top of the hill. Now, being sober feels like pushing the boulder down a hill. Easy. Simple. Effortless. Overall, I feel less anxious. I feel happier. I feel lighter. For some people, sobriety is a slog. For me, it is a joy, like I discovered a hidden level in my favorite video game, or a room in my house that I never knew was there. This has been here all along? I think to myself. Why didn’t I come here sooner?


It had been a long time since I had last seen A.P. Thirteen years, at least. He hid his buzz well. At first, I could barely tell he was drunk. But I am a survivor of an abusive relationship with an alcoholic. For months, my safety depended on my ability to be a human interlock. At one point, I could tell how drunk my ex was just by the way he opened the front door of the house we shared. A.P. drinks IPAs, just like my ex, and soon the hops poured out of his sweat and stuck to the insides of my nostrils. I did my best to keep the fear at bay.


In high school, A.P. was a loving, attentive boyfriend. He was kind and sensitive and gentle. He never raised his voice at me. He was never physically threatening with me. He never tested my boundaries. We had an uncharacteristically healthy, respectful relationship for a pair of seventeen year olds. Losing my virginity to him was and still is one of the sweetest memories that I have. Discovering my sexuality with a partner as loving and open as A.P. is something I will never take for granted, mostly because I know how rare it is. I don’t think he takes it for granted either. “You set me up for a lot of future disappointment,” A.P. joked with me the night of our reunion. What I wanted to say to him that night that I didn’t was, Same, buddy. Same. But isn’t that the beauty of youth? Sometimes, you just don’t know how good you have it.


Thirteen years later, A.P. and I sat on the porch of my parents’ house like we did when we were kids. It was as if no time had passed. When I mentioned that he still looked like he did all those years ago, he joked in his deep voice, “My age finally caught up with my looks.” He was right. He had looked thirty his entire life. His insides finally matched his outsides.


Every now and then, the topic of drinking came up. He talked about his dad’s alcoholism, and his step dad’s. He told me over dinner that he was proud of me for getting sober. I told him my story about the alcoholic that I dated, about how he left me and my dog in the Grand Canyon. A story for another day. He got the same shocked look on his face that everyone gets when I tell that story. As if maybe I’m making it up. I wish that I was, but also, it was a turning point for me. I’m grateful for the pain of that memory as much as I am ashamed of it.


We did a lot of reminiscing that night, and a lot of catching up. A.P. was older, wiser, but he hadn’t really changed. He was still brooding and thoughtful. He was still sensitive and gentle. He was still kind and warm. By the time we said our goodbyes, I was still curious as to why he had reached out to me in the first place. He hadn’t made a pass at me; he hadn’t asked me for anything. Was it pure nostalgia? I couldn’t help but think that something felt unfinished when he departed in his Uber. Not on my part, but on his. I wasn’t sure what it was.


Before I ever decided to quit drinking, I thought a lot about quitting drinking. I played with the idea in my head the way my cat paws at his toys, with a vague sort of curiosity. A friend of mine from college, who I still keep up with on Instagram, posts from time to time about her own sobriety: big milestones; thoughts about how her life has changed; reasons why she got sober. I felt drawn in by this content, and I was curious about it. Every now and then, I would ask her questions about it. She was always kind, and patient, and honest. She never pulled or pushed me in any direction, or questioned my curiosity. She never let on that she suspected I was grappling with my own sobriety. She just answered my questions honestly, thoughtfully, dispassionately. Now that I am sober, I wonder if she smiles when she sees me posting on Instagram about the same kind of things. I would venture a guess that she knew long before I did that this was coming for me. I am grateful for her patience, her kindness, her lack of judgement.


A few days after my reunion with A.P., I got a message from him. It was a screenshot of a timer. Four days, seven hours, 44 seconds. I knew immediately what he was counting. It was the number of days since his last drink.


“One day at a time!” I replied back to him. Followed by, “I’m proud of you.”


While I was dating the alcoholic, I used to think to myself, I’m not an alcoholic. I have never been as bad as this! And I was right. I never got a DUI. I never lost a job. I never ran out of gas while drinking and driving halfway up a mountain in the middle of the night. If he was the measure for alcoholism, I wasn’t even toeing the line. But who gets to decide where the line is?


Eventually, I would learn that this was classic codependent thinking, a way for my subconscious to fight what I knew was the truth: I wanted to quit drinking, but I didn’t think I could quit drinking. So I surrounded myself with people who served a purpose in the narrative of my dependency: I was surrounded by drinkers. I can’t stop drinking! I’ll lose all my friendships. I can’t stop drinking, I’ll lose my relationship! I don’t need to stop drinking, I’m not nearly as bad as ________.


Once I got sober, I realized that everyone has their own journey. I got to decide where my line was, and you get to decide where your line is. It could be motherhood. Or marriage. Or a milestone birthday. Or one too many embarrassing stories from the office Christmas party. I realized I didn’t have to have “a problem” to want to quit drinking, and your rock bottom can look different from everyone else’s. In fact, you don’t have to find a rock bottom at all. You may, and that’s ok, too. Or, you can just decide, I’m a different person now. And that’s that.


I also learned that if a relationship can’t survive without alcohol, it wasn’t a relationship in the first place. It was a codependency. I’m better off without it.


The great irony of all these realizations and all of this insight is that they come after. The wisdom came after I decided to quit drinking, and not a moment sooner. If it came before, sobriety would be easy. If it came before, I would have quit drinking five or six years ago. But that’s not how life works. There is no easy entry point for difficult choices. They require blind faith, a big leap, and pure acceptance that the free fall may last a lot longer than what feels comfortable.


I dated a recovering alcoholic earlier this year. He has been sober for fourteen years. Aside from a few people on the periphery of my life, he was the first sober addict I had ever known. We were dating when I decided to stop drinking. I didn’t even tell him I quit. I just did. I saw him living his life, full of passion and creativity and energy, and it clicked. I quit. Just like that.


He broke up with me a week ago, 61 days into my sobriety. Sometimes, I think our shorter love affairs can be even more impactful on our lives than the longer ones. These relationships serve us like little river rafts, ferrying us from one bank of our life to the other. Sometimes, the crossing is wild, it lasts a lot longer than we would like. We wonder if we’re going to make it to the other side. I have had more than one wild crossing in my life. Other times, the crossing is smooth, the exit calm and graceful. Thankfully, my last relationship was the latter. We began our relationship thoughtfully, deliberately. Somewhere in the middle, I quit drinking, and not with a splash or a bang, but quietly, as though I was slipping into a glassy pool in the middle of the night. And then, the relationship was over. As deliberately as it had begun, we were done. Despite my confusion about why he chose to end things, I am grateful that he helped ferry me from one side of my life to the other. I wonder how many times I have been that for someone else.


The thought of it makes me happy and sad, all at once.


If you are considering sobriety, or just curious about mine, please don’t hesitate to send me a direct message on Instagram (@stephshuff) or text me if you have my phone number. I am always here to connect, talk, or answer questions.

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