I don’t think most of us actually want to drink ourselves to death, but it’s difficult not to.
The important thing to lead with, here, is that I’m not sober. I’ve never been in the program, I have no chips, I consume alcohol. Much less than I used to consume, and in a much less compromising way, but nonetheless. Whatever I say here is in no way meant to offer alternatives to sobriety, guidance in the management of sobriety, etc. I have been lucky enough to find means of regulating my alcohol intake such that I, my loved ones, and my therapeutic and medical providers all feel that things are balanced and safe for me. But many folks in my life are sober. It is what they need.
I’m not not here to make suggestions. I’m here to talk about how I have learned to take care of me, in a culture that is heavily dependent on the normalized abuse of alcohol, and how fucking hard that can be.
There are two different ways to explain my predisposition for drinking.
Option one: I come from two different family trees that have histories of alcoholism.
Option two: I come from two different family trees that have histories of addiction.
The first time I used option two out loud in a social setting, I wanted to take it back immediately. What the fuck? I scolded myself. Where the fuck did that come from? You’re being overdramatic again, Conklin. You’re not that important. This is a common refrain from my internal security guard: we’re doing too much, self. We’re making things bigger than they are, self. We are being self-centered and egotistical, self. I like to imagine some people have a personal watchdog apparatus that tells them things like, “nice! Okay, we handled that pretty well, all things considered!” My therapist would like to remind me that I have a right to that sort of internal feedback, too. But the reality is, what I have is my worst critic who is also my only critic and also my mental narrator and also my overbearing elite figure skating coach. What the fuck, Conklin?
Back to the first time I told someone I had addiction genetics.
After the surge of “who do you think you are?” shame receded a little, I checked in with the rest of my body, curious to see whether or not the whole crew that is me and my various operating systems was also skeptical. What did Team Abby think about the use of the term addiction? Of me/us claiming that I had an inherited history of addiction? My gut shrugged, palms upturned. A few moments later, my nervous system followed suit. It’s true, isn’t it? the thought arose. What are now-dead relatives' historic multi-hour slow drips of liquor and beer, cases of withdrawal shakes, raised voices, and violence, if not an archive of substance dependence?
As a society, we relegate the the term “addiction” to “drugs,” and in turn, assign the identifier “drugs” to, basically, any mind-altering substance that is not alcohol. We give booze this weird, separate category. Maybe it’s because alcohol was once the safest hydration option. Maybe it’s because the peasants of yore made home-brew in the year 500. Maybe it’s because alcohol was the only cheaply and easily homemade drug available during wars and famines and whatever else (have bathtub, will gin). Or maybe it’s because alcohol addiction ruins lives more incrementally than a heroin addiction, can kill you more slowly than meth can, can be played fast and loose with for a decent chunk of time before one is in overdose territories. I don't know; there’s research to be done here, but I haven’t done it. And I’m not going to. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in figuring out how I can live alongside this reality without letting it consume me.
The first time I intentionally had a drink— as an activity, as a legal adult— it didn't just feel good; it felt correct. Like a brick getting slid into place in a wall, sides lined with mortar and face scraped clean. I remember being pleased with myself about in this fucked way, because there was a sense of legacy to the whole thing. I had long been aware of alcoholism as some of the ancestral baggage dangling from both of my family trees. But to actually register a drink as something good and relieving and natural to my body was a different animal entirely. I felt like I had gotten into a club, or punched in on my respective ancestral time clocks in a whole new way. Was this a warning sign? Yes. Did I treat it as such? Of course not.
I wasn't a drinker during undergrad. I got tipsy once, sneaking sips from my newly-21-year-old friend’s birthday “white flight” of wine at the fake-Mediterranean bar in our college town. I drank half of a Woodchuck cider a few times (in retrospect, a great way to put me off alcohol entirely; that stuff is nasty). But it wasn’t until graduation, December of my 21st year, that I started drinking with intent and swiftly became a convert; it was a perfect group activity with co-workers after nightmarish days at our shared place of employment. It gave me something to do in unfamiliar social situations. It made me feel like I knew what I was doing as an adult.
From the start, I had a high tolerance. I liked whiskey, I liked vodka. Where my peers went for flavored drinks or souped-up cocktails, I was very happy with a something-and-soda, maybe a something-and-tonic, because I wanted alcohol taste in my alcohol drink. It became my calling card: Abby didn’t fuck around with booze. I didn't do shots, I didn’t do sugary mixers, and my gluten intolerance prevented my shotgunning any kind of beer. I didn’t chase blackouts, I didn’t get angry. But I also didn’t cut myself off. Over the course of an evening, I just steadily worked my way through drinks, maintaining a level of inebriation that a was somewhere between loose and wobbly for several hours. When my tolerance increased, I drank proportionately more, chasing that preferred spot on the drunk spectrum.
Ever willful and systematic, I pursued control and managed to maintain it for awhile. And by the time the cracks in the control started surfacing, I was too confident in myself to worry. Even now, just writing these preceding paragraphs, I’m feeling the same buzz of pride I always used to feel when drinking: I’ve got this. I’m made for this. So the crash, when it came, wasn't exactly a crash. It was impossible for my rock bottom to be a singular event, given how deep my patterning was, the firm establishment of my internal systems. I have to imagine that this is often the case for other folks with booze. Certainly, some of us wake up in a hospital or crushed by guilt or deeply wounded, and the bough breaks. But I think that, the majority of the time, it’s a slow-motion implosion. My pent-up dam burst initially, for example, in September of 2018. But I didn’t actually start making moves towards helping myself until months later, because I didn't want to. By that point, I had discovered what millennia of people have discovered before me: it wasn’t just that drinking felt satisfying or necessary to my social life or a way to have fun. Drinking brought me all-encompassing, floating relief, however brief. It provided both a mental and physical easing, reaching deep into my bones. And I was loathe to relinquish it.
I am a relentlessly anxious person. If I were a screen saver, I would be that old school PC one, where the multi-colored cube morphs into a flower into a spiky flower into a multi-dimensional diamond thing then collapses back in and returns to cube form, bouncing around the black computer screen all the while. My brain is constantly whirring, my skin crawling, my guilt complex churning. What should I be doing right now? Am I being good? Do people hate me? Why was I so awful to that friend fourteen years ago? Am I bad person? My parents can corroborate: the first time I ever lied, I was three or four, and I had a wailing, snotty confessional breakdown minutes after doing so. The first time they played the Talking Heads song “Burning Down the House” for toddler me, I panicked because I thought it was saying that our apartment building was burning down. I lay down on the floor and cried. You know that running joke about how everyone’s bathroom gets cleaned really thoroughly the moment they have a pressing deadline for something else? That’s how I live, if my operating system runs unchecked (deadline or not— I’ll invent one, watch me).
All of that, compounded by the various traumas I had accrued over my first two decades of being alive, meant that I reached my twenty-first year, out of school and suddenly an “adult” in a screaming, wound-up knot. One that I desperately wanted to escape.
That was the year I got medicated. It was also the year I started drinking.
It’s important to note that plenty of meds do serious physical damage to the body when alcohol is introduced. Mine don’t, per se. There is other harm done, in terms of drug efficacy and the psychological impact thereof, and it takes a lot longer to surface. In the time before that harm made itself apparent in me, baby me fell in love with the way drinking disrupted the cyclical, restrictive patterns that my anxiety and I governed me with. Alcohol took ahold of the laces down the back of my self-imposed straight jacket, pulled the ends, and let me breathe for a few hours. The release was divine. And although it only lasted for an hour or three, the immediacy of the relief was more than what psychotropic drugs could seemingly offer me.
At the time of this essay’s writing (as opposed to ten years ago when I first got medicated), there’s a more concerted effort in the drug development field to roll out a class of anti-depressants that offer immediate relief. But as I experienced it (and still experience it) medication never offered a “cure” in the way that Hollywood and the internet (and me and probably most of us) would like it to. It limits or removes debilitating symptoms, and can make an extreme difference in your quality of life, certainly; I will never forget the weeks that followed the filling of my first prescription, and the easing of the weight that had been crushing me. But in the grand scheme, I have found that the thing about psychotropic drugs is that they do not fix me. In December of 2013, my new anti-depressant did not enter my bloodstream, swim around, discover what was “wrong” and put a stop to it. Unfortunately, the pursuit of mental wellness is not an episode of Osmosis Jones.
What my prescription did do— still does— is walk me back from my edges, giving me the chance to face myself and the healing I need to do with a reduced risk of hurting myself. To feel less feral in one way in order to feel more in another, because medication can help me access those feelings and the work that need to be done with them by reducing the internal cacophony that my unwell self makes. But medication is not a magic eraser. As I’ve experienced it, meds are a means by which “better” can become accessible, through diligent self work and the development of new patterns, in the brain as well as in day-to-day life. Which took, and takes, time. And effort. And at twenty-one, I was really, really tired of time and effort and being in pain.
Know what doesn't take time? Alcohol.
It wasn't until five years after first getting medicated (the autumn of 2018) that I got slapped with a painful reality: the temporary numbing and turning off of thoughts and feelings that I thought alcohol made possible, was, in fact, not at all temporary. Or controllable. Eventually, it got everywhere, into everything; all of my feelings, all of my thoughts, all of the spaces in me where joy lived as well as where grief hid. And when alcohol is ingested by a body that is on anti-depressants, this muffling effect is often more potent. Certainly, this was the case for me; alcohol kneecapped my ability to engage in self work because it set a hard limit on what healing and emotional change I could engage in. It turns out that you can’t plumb the depths of your personal history and mental health when you’re regularly using a substance that cuts you off from those parts of yourself. My original desire to get away from what was hurting in me ultimately ended up locking me out of myself entirely.
In August of 2018, I started going to improv school for the first time in my life. I had been living in New York City since I finished college in 2013, but after seeing a revival of “Angels in America” that July, I had suddenly been bitten by an I wanna be an actor bug. After several weeks of fixating on the idea (see also: I have debilitating anxiety), I got fed up with myself and sought out some kind of class to enroll in and take the edge off. Improv Level 1 was the easiest way in: Monday nights, 7pm to 10pm, for two months, plus required attendance at improv shows hosted by the school in its home venue. I would kill many birds with this stone, I figured— learn a new skill, meet new people, get me out of the house on a weeknight. It was a pretty optimistic period for me: I had escaped a very toxic work environment, had recently moved into a 3-bedroom with two women my own age and the place was full of sunlight from 7am to 7pm, and was not living paycheck to paycheck for the first time in my life. I wasn’t working with a therapist, but I did feel that I had most of my marbles gathered together in a manageable heap. I was ready to do new things.
If you’ve taken improv yourself, or live proximate to the performance world, you might know where this is going.
Over the months prior to that August, I had been carefully trying to limit my consumption, having noticed that I might have a problem. I had siphoned whiskey from a previous roommate’s stash repeatedly. I drank almost every night. I used anything as an excuse to drink; other people drinking, characters in a movie I was watching drinking, a coworker mentioning they wanted a drink. I could feel myself shifting gears into a much scarier, harder-to-escape mode, and in a distant way, knew that I wanted out. So by July of 2018, I had stopped keeping alcohol in my apartment, and had told some close friends that I was actively working on scaling back. And I was. I was trying. But after two weeks of Improv Level 1, everything was out the window.
I drank so much during the following four months, I’m still bewildered by it. I can only speak to my experience with the program I was enrolled with, but from my vantage point, it seems that 90% of New York’s comedy culture is alcohol. Many venues are bars, folks go to bars before and after performances, folks drink while they perform, folks drink while they sit in the audience. After pretty much every class I took for Improv Levels 1 and 2 in 2018, the instructors would say, “go to the bar downstairs and have a beer with your classmates.” The school had an affiliation with a place a few doors down, and students and instructors and house team members from the school would swarm there after evening classes, sucking down beers and shots. Or, in my case, scotch. Two of my Level 1 classmates were guys in their forties who discovered I loved it, and would sip on it for hours with them if they bought it for me. I then wanted to prove I could hang with the guys and sip on bought scotch for hours. Plus, I was hung up on a super unavailable man in that scene, who would join the crowd at the bar after 10pm. So I found myself hanging around and drinking for hours at time on weeknights because I wanted to prove I was cool, and I wanted unhealthy attention from an unhealthy man.
At first, I had myself convinced that I was aware of what I was doing, and would stop soon. But being aware, it turned out, didn’t mean much. Now, I can look back and know that this was because I was officially at the point where control was beginning to dissolve under the weight of substance use. Maybe I could recognize that I was doing something harmful, but I was unable to stop myself. It wasn’t unlike how I’d been before going on anti-depressants, ruled by anxiety and a rinse-wash-repeat cycle of behavior that I badly wanted to escape, but could not find a way to. Every Monday that autumn, I would leave the office or the school I had been working out of, exercise, skip dinner, go to Improv class, then start drinking. The working-out-and-no-meal thing was some very old school Abby-is-drinking-too-much behavior; I was skipping a meal and exercising in order to leave mathematical room for calories that would be imbibed later in the evening. It was an indication of how swiftly I was spiraling, but instead of reading the proverbial room, I carried on.
The whole situation gave me a weird high; I’d been performing as a poet for years, so swimming in a different performing arts pond was fun and new. Improv was also edged with a riskiness that I rarely let myself partake in, and the freedom of letting myself lean into that riskiness was its own intoxication. I barreled along, taking worse and worse care of myself on Monday nights after class, Wednesday nights at the shows we were required to attend, and occasional Thursdays or Fridays if I could make it to the venue. I think I’d been operating at that speed for about a month before the first of my aggregate rock bottom moments came knocking: I went to work hungover, on an important day of staff training.
In all my years of drinking, I had never shown up at work impeded by the night before. Never. I was careful, I was measured, I was intentional. So this was new. I was stunned at myself. A heavy fog of shame shrouded my headache and I for a grueling eight hours, and by the time I got home, I was speaking with myself firmly: this isn’t who I am. We aren’t doing this again. We will limit how much time we spend at the bar after class, we will go home, we are not compromising work like this. But of course, even if it wasn’t who I was, I didn’t, I didn’t, and I did. There were at least three more nights that elicited similarly disastrous results over the following weeks. I was lucky— I didn’t get hurt, didn’t get found out at work. But the horror I felt each time, combined with my desire to never repeat the previous nights’ actions but then finding myself doing so anyways, was brutal. I will never forget standing in pressed trousers and a good blouse on a corner in Ozone Park one morning, waiting to cross the street to go visit one of my schools, and realizing my skin smelled like the previous night’s scotch. I had showered and everything, and it didn't matter. I was sweating alcohol. This period of hurtling downhill really laid bare how bad things could get, and threatened to reveal how much worse they could be. And apparently that was what I needed— the whole slide, cumulative instead of climactic— to come to terms with the fact that I was courting disaster.
I took a break from improv classes after my Level 2 class ended in mid-November. This helped me take some steps towards getting shaky, I-am-drinking-less legs under me. I focused on the strenuousness of my job, and reflected on the wild ride that had been the previous summer’s anxious fixation on acting, into improv classes, into losing all semblance of control over my alcohol consumption— what had I been looking for? What had I found? I began therapy again after a three year hiatus. I took a look at not only the relief that drinking brought me (and the weird, deep satisfaction I felt when doing it), but at the lifelong habit I had of numbing strong emotions. I came to terms with the fact that I used alcohol to both intensify that numbing and to help me feel “normal” in social settings where my anxiety would usually rule me. I told that therapist that I wanted to change.
If possible, though, I didn’t want to pursue sobriety.
The thought of navigating the soused millennial landscape while repeatedly saying “no, seriously, I don't want a drink, can we focus on something else” felt insurmountable. Part of that was residual trauma from an abusive relationship, where “no" didn’t mean much coming out of my mouth. Part of that was a total loss of faith in my own strength to swear off drinking completely. And, yes, part of that was the fact that I didn’t want to stop drinking. So that therapist and I set up a plan for moderation, a method that has been proven to help some folks reduce and reframe their alcohol consumption.
We scheduled three days per week upon which I could drink. The maximum I could imbibe on any of those days was three drinks. I could schedule social activities and events around my moderation calendar, and communicate my limits with friends. I could text my therapist if I needed accountability on a tough night. To be entirely transparent, I did not think that this was a long-term solution. But I was willing to give it a shot. I wanted to be different, I wanted to feel better. And if nothing else, I knew (have always known) that I am a hell of workhorse. Particularly when given rules. So maybe, I reasoned, my lifelong, pigheaded commitment to putting nose to grindstone would save me?
Reader, it did. Or, ‘I,’ I guess.
It took two and a half years. I backslid so many times.
I dated someone who turned out to be an alcoholic, then got into a long-term relationship with someone else who was an alcoholic. I communicated my boundaries with friends who then betrayed me by pushing me to drink anyway (the friendships, uh, changed, after that). I had to practice going to poetry gigs and turning down drinks if I had already met my quota for the night, or for the week. I had to get used to the fact that people would inform me that I definitely didn’t have a problem, based on what they saw or heard from me, and that I was being overdramatic thanks very much.
I had to get used to being alone with myself and my brain after work in the evenings, no drink to blur the edges. I had to get used to forgiving myself when I screwed up. I especially had to practice noticing the good changes in me when they made themselves evident, and celebrating them; to exercise long-unused muscles of self-love and care. Practice was ultimately the name of the whole game: I had to practice being someone who did not choose alcohol over herself.
I remember a moment in May of 2019, four months into my moderation work. A particularly brutal series of events was unfolding at my job. On the second or third day of that prolonged panic attack, I noticed that I had no cravings for booze. Maybe some CBD drops, or the freedom to go home and never return to my job again, sure. But the idea of drinking in direct response to what I was feeling made me nauseous. It was a terrible time, but I remember that little bright patch, and thinking, okay. Okay, that’s something. Slowly, the tide was changing. I was moving carefully back towards being someone who could acknowledge something was not ok, and not subsequently continue doing it.
March through May of 2020, I let myself get careless with alcohol again. It felt weird; I had spent enough time actively dialoguing with myself about my cravings, and the effects of alcohol on my emotions and my body, that I couldn’t just relax into a drink anymore. But in a time of total panic (featuring living with a roommate who had long COVID), I wanted to drink all the same. I didn’t enjoy it. I couldn’t. But for a little while there, I was stupid with it anyways, and it got ugly. I hadn’t needed a reminder of the genetic component of my relationship with alcohol, but boy did I get one. The fact that I was slated to move to Northern Virginia in order to be closer to my parents that June helped ensure that I didn’t revert entirely. The change of scene, and proximity of loved ones after a terrifying few months, helped me get myself back online. I realized that I could get myself, and my habit of choosing-to-not-choose-alcohol, back online. I realized that I was no longer thinking about moderation as something I had to do, but something I wanted to succeed at. I didn’t want to be my former self, armed with her drinks and her gritted teeth and her brain fog, ever again.
Early in 2021, I started trying to have conversations with my then-partner about their alcohol consumption. They didn’t take me seriously, but their denial drove me to take my own habits more seriously, as I caught myself slipping often when spending time with them. We wouldn’t break up until several months later, but now I know the groundwork was laid then, as I became increasingly worried about them, angry at them, worried for me, and angry at myself. I remember one of the last straws: me expressing concern that we would be expected to drink excessively in a particular social situation that was fast-approaching, and my then-partner saying, “well, I guess you’ll have to figure out how to deal with that, won’t you?” By the end of 2021, I had— I was single again, and felt as though my life had been stripped down to very specific bones.
The stripped-down situation wasn’t a bad thing. If anything, it felt revelatory; it was as if I had been scooped out and sanded down and varnished, prepared to live not just my life, but my life as I had chosen it. I had my graduate work, I had my writing and art. I had my family of origin AND chosen family. I had my mostly-intact health, means of income, and a clarity of direction that was almost visceral. I had me, basically. And she didn't need alcohol. For the first time since 2013, I did not need alcohol.
This is not to say I do not desire alcohol sometimes. I'm less rigorous about scheduling my drinking days now, because I rarely reach the 3 drinks x 3 days limit moderation advises. But trust me, the appetite is still there. Sometimes, I do drink 3 or more while with friends. Sometimes I drink multiple days in a row, if I’m visiting loved ones or traveling. But where that used to mean getting drunk multiple days in a row, it now means a glass or two of wine three nights a row, more if it’s a very special occasion.Where that used to result in me missing drinking acutely in the days after the fact, it now means that I take time away from alcohol after spending a few days consuming it, and the cravings aren’t all-consuming.
The strained moments do happen, but less and less. And when they do, I'm no longer incapacitated by them. I have devoted so much time and energy to nurturing other parts of myself and my life, and interrogating my relationship with alcohol, that my desire to drink has lost many of its teeth. What I feel when I’m drinking, how my body responds to alcohol— all of it has changed. I no longer need to chase an inebriated reprieve, scrabbling at my mental cliff until drunkenness loosens my fingers. My system doesn’t fixate on alcohol, stringing itself along from whenever I wake up until it’s time to drink. I no longer believe drinking can save me from myself. I can, and do, stop myself when I notice I’m consuming more than I want to.
I’m not at a point where I can be around drunk people and not get drunk myself. I may never be. And that's okay. The difference is that now I don’t give over to it like I might’ve, once. I no longer use other people’s drinking as an excuse for my own; if I feel that urge come up, I leave the company I am in. Conversely, if I’m home and navigating a desire for drinking that has surfaced (anxiety, a TV show I'm watching features people with cocktails, just my fucking body shouting at me) part of a can of cider or a small glass of wine will usually do it, before I dump the rest down the sink or into a glass jar that will get lost in the back of my fridge for three weeks. Or, I choose to not feed the beast at all, Irish-exiting my own internal debates in favor of going for a walk, texting one of my accountability buddies, doing some art, or, going to bed early. Often, I go to bed early; it helps me avoid hurting myself, it helps me rest, it helps me tell my brain and its hamster wheel that the day is done and it can fuck off now. And while this doesn’t always work, it is satisfying to do. Because for a long time, drinking felt like the only way to get everything to shut up. Now, I understand that it was slowly turning up the volume the whole time, even if things temporarily went quiet in the interim.
Somehow, I was lucky enough, was loved enough, supported enough, and had sufficient financial means that I was able to find a way through, and choose something different. To continue to choose something different. Because I am— still choosing, every day. I’m not sober, but I’m on the path towards my own recovery, and can confirm that what folks say about addiction is true in terms of permanence: the appetite is always in you, always knocking at your door. But as you change how you answer it, and whether you answer it, it gets fainter. Other noises override that knock. Other parts of your life come to your door. And how you listen, how you answer that door, changes, too.
Almost three months after I quit doing improv and went back to therapy—and started addressing my alcohol situation directly— I decided to try again. One more time.
In early 2019, I enrolled Level 3 at the same improv school I’d crashed around in during the previous autumn, hoping against hope that it would be a good, safe learning experience. One that wasn’t soaked in my substance dependence, or comedy’s substance dependence. One from which I would manage to emerge with new skills, not new misery. Looking back, I honestly can’t believe I chanced myself like that; talk about frying pan into the fire/the same frying pan. But after skimming the list of Level 3 teachers on the school website that January, I decided that one instructor was my best option because my gut told me he was the right, safe choice, and then I waited for a class of his to open up for registration.
I picked P— (Uncle P—, as he called himself more often than not) because of two things in his teaching bio. First, the note that he loved teaching improv to kids most of all. Second, his headshot, which was not a headshot— it was a photo of him with a full salt-and-pepper beard and glasses, collapsed on a stage floor mid-skit. Something told me I’d be okay in his class. And though, to this day, I cannot tell you why, I was right. P— was warm and patient and intentional. He created a learning environment that was very different from the previous ones I’d been in at the school, taking great joy in teaching and getting to know each of us. He was also sober. After years of drinking while living and working in the New York comedy scene, P— had changed his life, and he was vocal about it. Joking about his new fixations with fitness and going to the gym, anxiety management and mental health, the process of filling up sections of his life that had been previously filled by alcohol consumption, P— offered a different narrative. One that I had desperately needed, not only in the context of the improv world, but that of many of the other worlds I occupied, too.
I struggled in P—‘s class. STRUGGLED. In hindsight, I now know this was due in part to the fact that the thick crud of chronic alcohol consumption was starting working its way out of my system, bringing me face-to-face with myself in alien new ways. I was self-conscious of my body and emotions and what I was doing with them, what I was experiencing with them. I was wooden and awkward, sort of a struggling marionette. That level of vulnerability, the numbness having been sloughed off, was new. I felt raw and new. That made playing pretend very difficult. But I saw the class through, reaching the end of the eight weeks with a deep sense of satisfaction. I knew that I didn’t want to enroll in Level 4 and that was fine. I didn’t want improv any more. What I wanted was to keep getting better. I knew I was only at the beginning of it (oh boy, if only I knew HOW at the beginning of it I was at the time). Inhabiting myself, not other characters, was the art form I wanted to focus on.
I didn’t go back. The right teacher at the right time helped me realize I didn’t need to. And I thank him.