In struggling against anguish, one never produces serenity; the struggle against anguish only produces new forms of anguish. ~ Simone Well
For over ten years now, two or three evenings a week -- sometimes more, sometimes less -- I've had a glass of wine or two. Once a month, if it's been one of those days, I might exchange the wine for vodka with a splash of cranberry and a pretty green lime wedge. I call it a "vodka kind of night" and usually refill my glass . . . once . . . or twice if it's not a work night. Okay, sometimes it is. And sometimes it's more than once a month.
You know the kind of day . . . You splash coffee on the perfect shirt as you're running out the door late. You trip over the dog who has thrown up on the rug . . . and you step in it. Your highway entrance is closed, your technology fails during THE presentation, and you find out your debit card has been compromised . . . but not before you're standing at the grocery check-out with a full cart and a gum-popping cashier with a nose ring announces "declined" without an ounce of adolescent compassion for your grown-up dilemmas.
Right about now, if you're still reading, you can probably relate on some level. And based on the title of this blog, you might be rolling your eyes in mock terror of the lecture that is sure to come. I promise I'm not going in that direction. I'm not the alcohol police. Hell, I'll even sit and share a bottle of wine with you and listen to your story if we're still friends after this. Or we can just laugh at the absurdities of life, because . . . let's be honest . . . the scenarios above are just a day in the life. I didn't even touch on the real heartache, the tragedy, the true broken-ness . . . the things we try to hide that keep us standing in the wine aisle every other night perusing and pretending it's the quirky labels that we love . . . the things that can drive us to the bottom of that rose colored bottle. So I'm also going to be painfully honest with you about my own story . . .
I've had countless days that fit that description . . . and none of that is why I drink.
A little over a decade ago . . . I didn't drink at all. It wasn't that I had any strong convictions against it. As a matter of fact, I interpret the Bible, which is my guidebook for life, to offer up wine as a balm for the spirit . . . to lighten the heart when it's heavy (Ps.104:14-15). But all those years ago, alcohol wasn't even on my radar. I was chasing babies, chasing a career, chasing an unmerciful clock. I was working and raising children, putting them through private schools even as I was still cracking my own textbooks and cranking out theses into the midnight hours. I was exhausted, and sleep was my only respite, my only vice. I had no time, nor the inclination or money to drink at the end of a day. And I certainly had no time for sorrow.
So when all of a sudden I felt the crush of a life betrayal so deeply that, when the fortress I had built around that single trust broke, the colossal tide of emotion that swept over me was frightening . . . especially frightening because I did something I rarely ever do in my pragmatic existence.
In the middle of one summer, I went off the clock, and I cried . . . like all the demons of Hell had been loosed on my soul. Under a July moon, something just surged up into my throat out of my belly and I began to howl like a wounded animal. It was like someone else had taken over my body and my soul and it was beyond my control. My husband tried to stop it. He frantically tried to hush me by waving his arms and beseeching me: the neighbors would hear . . . I would scare our daughters . . . I was scaring HIM. But it kept coming over me. That gut-wrenching wail followed me driving to the grocery store . . . took me over in hotel rooms and church parking lots. I cried in the shower and I wept over dinner in the kitchen. One evening, as I lay in bed, my body began to tremble again with that haunted, moaning wail, and my youngest daughter heard. She came to me and held me until I could finally manage to stifle that strange, foreign emotion . . . that ululating, keening wail that I could not recognize as grief. But I remember thinking that I. Must. Stop. This. I can't do this to my child, my daughter. She was a compassionate young adult in college, but that reversal of roles just felt wrong and imposing to me. That was the last time I cried that summer.
And then I began to drink.
A lot at first, admittedly. It was summer break and the days were long. I could stave of the sadness by pretending to be busy in the garden, running, cleaning . . . but every night as the sun began to set and the first shadows were cast, a shadow cast over my spirit, too . . . and I poured myself into a sweet melancholy. The number of days and the amount tapered off, but it had become routine. I mostly settled into a rich, burgundy Merlot or a bubbly amber Riesling. It was the prettiest lie I could find to hide my grown-up problems.
I've been drinking for over ten years now, and I will tell you I'm not an alcoholic. I don't drink before 5:00pm. I don't get drunk. I've never lost a job. Indeed, I've earned a few more degrees and a few more promotions over these years. I've never driven under the influence of alcohol. Too many glasses of wine have never driven me to bad decisions or regrets or words I can't take back. I mostly drink alone. I will tell you . . . I would have told you . . . up until three weeks ago . . . that alcohol is not a problem for me. I would have told you there is a window of time in the evenings when the business of the day . . . the busyness . . . is done. Dinner is over and it's too early for bed . . . and a glass or two of wine "takes the edge off." I can feel it coming and I want to catch it before it can surface . . . that edge of hurt or sorrow or loneliness . . . an often undefined sadness that wells up in the quiet of the night. Something compels me to catch it and subdue it before it overtakes me. And for all this I have justified just one more glass of wine . . .
But truth has a way of catching up with you. It won't leave you alone. And there is truth in pain that you can't ignore. Conversely, alcohol numbs and it paralyzes. When truth is saying "move away from the pain" or "transcend it to something better or even beautiful" or "find your purpose in this pain" alcohol is saying "No worries . . . I've got this. I can stop the pain. Don't move" or "If today's a little rough for you, I'll be here when you get home." Truth is steadfast, though . . . always waiting in the haze . . . ready to do battle . . .
July, historically, is always unpredictable for me . . . full of ironies and paradoxes . . . rolling hills of angst and alternate, sudden joy. This summer has been no exception. Pain came calling again, and I met it with my typical stoicism and a bottle of Merlot at sunset. And then, at the beginning of August, I was smack in the middle of deep, beseeching prayer -- it was well before 5:00pm -- on my knees with hands raised to Heaven when God and pain said, "Remember this?" And I began to cry again . . . over ten years later. . . like I'd picked up right where I left off. Deep, shuddering sobs bubbled from beneath my heart that was breaking all over again . . . had never really stopped breaking . . . I had just stopped feeling it. A few days later it happened again during prayer. And I let it. There was no one around to stop me . . . no one around to care or scare. I let it go. I wailed like a banshee. And it began to feel different . . . like little pieces of tar black sadness were breaking loose from my soul and rising to the surface. It felt good and cleansing. It felt like healing.
Little by little this summer, I've been healing, giving my pain up to God instead of shutting it down, giving myself up to the hard work and courage of accepting my sorrows instead of trying to drown them. This means looking with clear eyes at some sad realities. It means a brutally honest backtrack of wrong turns and dead ends. It means embracing rock-bottom, personal responsibility, and renewed faith as a starting point for change.
Taking the edge off of an honest work-hard week on a Friday night with a friend or two is one thing. . . It might even qualify as a healthy decision, along with sleeping in on Saturday, lingering over coffee, and then lacing up your running shoes. Sitting in the dark alone, clutching a wine glass of regret three nights a week and ticking off the minutes until bedtime is something altogether different.
And I wonder now what would have happened if I had felt every bit of it then . . . what I might have done with the sadness and the sorrow . . . Isn't the reason for pain to let you know there's something wrong? And what if taking off the edge too many time equated to losing my edge . . . sacrificing parts of myself and who I might have been . . . could still be? What if all those suppressed tears . . . all those missed opportunities to cry out to God . . . . to seek His will in my pain . . . cost me some quicker answers . . . some firm convictions that might have sliced through my fears and uncertainties . . . through the inertia that would have propelled me forward?
And here is some beauty for a quick answer . . . that God promises to give us beauty for ashes (Isaiah 61:3), that He can restore lost years (Joel 2:25) . . . and that when we place our trust in Him, He can leave us with "immeasurably more than we could ever ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20).
I've cried a lot over these last few weeks, but between tears I've experienced more joy and beauty than I could have ever imagined in the place that I'm in. So I'm hanging on to these promises for a summer that's not yet over. I'm not vowing to put down my glass . . . but I'll put it firmly in its place behind my tears and my raised hands . . . and look for answers somewhere else. And I won't be drinking alone anymore . . . I'll raise my glass to another only to celebrate the joy and yes, soften the sorrow . . . both gifts from God.