Counting sheep, listening to cassette tapes, heavy breathing, warm milk… I tried everything to cure my childhood insomnia. My mom gave me melatonin pills and they didn’t work, so I begged her for something stronger. It wasn’t until my twenties that I discovered that warm milk did work—if I spiked it with whiskey. Then I began skipping the milk.
Starting around 10 years old, I dreaded bedtime. Alone in the dark with my anxiety-ridden mind, I would stare intently at the neon green numbers of the digital clock next to my bed, as they stubbornly climbed upwards from 1, to 2, to 2:30, to 3. Then the panic would set in: 3 am? I will surely die if I do not fall asleep right this second. Being tired for a day in fifth grade seemed like the worst fate imaginable.
For my 12th birthday, my parents got me tickets to go see Blue Man Group. The night before I was excited, so I lay awake, restless and miserable. Until 6 am. I woke up at 7 and spent my birthday in a zombified daze, too nauseous to eat cake. When I got to the show, I promptly fell asleep and missed most of it.
In high school, the stakes were raised. The night before my first final exam, still awake at 4 am, I went into my parents’ bedroom and begged my mom to hit me in the face.
“Knock me out! Please!” I said, like a legitimate insane person. To her credit, she refused.
I begged for sleeping pills. But my mom, being the holistic type—and again, to her credit—refused those, too. Knowing what I do now about my history with alcohol and other drugs, it seems clear to me that finding solace in sleeping pills at age 12 could have sent me down a dark path.
On the other hand, the melatonin she gave me didn’t help. The herbal remedy, thought to stimulate sleep and help regulate your REM cycles, stood no chance against the manic hamster wheel in my brain.
I started drinking in high school. At first, it was just on special occasions: cast parties, after prom, weekends. I loved the way booze gave me confidence and quieted my anxiety. In college, the insomnia got worse during final exams. So I started drinking and smoking pot by myself, just to help me calm down and sleep. By my sophomore year, I was drinking every night.
“It helps me sleep!” I would explain to anyone who wondered why I kept a bottle of bourbon next to my bed. But I wasn’t drinking only at bedtime. Frequently, I would pass out hours before I was in my bed, in the back of a cab or the corner of a party under a pile of coats. I wasn’t an alcoholic! I was a goddamn sleeping champion.
But though booze can literally knock you you out, it’s not the best remedy for insomnia. A review of various sleep studies found that alcohol can help some people fall asleep, but it interrupts the quality of sleep once you get there. Booze is metabolized quickly and, depending how much you drink, alcohol withdrawal symptoms generally kick in about halfway through the night. This can cause shallow sleep, multiple awakenings, nightmares, sweating and restlessness—the very problems I began drinking to avoid.
Alcohol also reduces rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the stage of sleep where you dream. So if you’re really, really drunk, you might not dream at all. For years, I rarely did. Sometimes I had nightmares—but the kind where you are physically awake but in a blackout and have a lot of apologies to make the next day.
REM sleep is also thought to be the most mentally restorative stage of sleep. In addition to inducing restless, intermittent sleep throughout the night, disruptions in this cycle can make you drowsy during the day time and make it more difficult to concentrate. This can be a mixed blessing, if you’re trying not to concentrate on the fact that you’re developing a pretty gnarly alcohol problem.
“The immediate and short-term impact of alcohol is to reduce the time it takes to fall asleep, and this effect on the first half of sleep may be partly the reason some people with insomnia use alcohol as a sleep aid,” explains researcher Irshaad Ebrahim, the medical director at the London Sleep Centre in the UK. “However, this is offset by having more disrupted sleep in the second half of the night.” He adds that “alcohol should not be used as a sleep aid, and regular use of alcohol as a sleep aid may result in alcohol dependence.”
I don’t necessarily believe using booze to treat insomnia was the primary cause of my alcoholism. I think I was just wired this way. But it certainly didn’t help. Towards the end of my drinking career, I would routinely pass out in all my clothes, usually in my bed, usually with my shoes on. Some nights, I would wake up around 3 am, either with a hangover or still drunk, kick off my shoes, crawl to the bathroom for water. Then once I’d metabolized all that liquor, I would wake up again early in the morning, craving alcohol. If I didn’t have any on hand, I might go to the neighborhood bodega for a pack of Coors Light. Coors Light. Clearly, I was in a dark place.
So, I got sober. That’s often what happens after you regularly find yourself drinking Coors Light at 5 am. If you’re lucky, you recognize you have a problem, and you get help. I was lucky.
But life without alcohol meant trying to sleep without alcohol. Early recovery was rough. Those first few nights without booze, my skin felt like it was crawling and I was sure I had bed bugs. I would spring out of bed and flick on the lights, hoping to catch the little critters, but they were always too fast for me.
As I would learn later, I was actually experiencing a common side effect of alcohol withdrawal. On the bright side: no bed bugs! Just a fairly serious substance use disorder.
During the day, I oscillated between periods of dark depression and waves of euphoria that are known in recovery circles as a “pink cloud.” But nights were almost always brutal. Even after the withdrawal passed, it was nearly impossible to fall asleep without booze to ease me into unconsciousness. For hours, I would writhe around dramatically on my bed, like one of Freddy Krueger’s victims. I tried—guess what?—counting sheep, warm milk, listening to music. I tore through every season of Frasier in my first month, twice.
But I persisted in tormenting myself, telling myself that life without alcohol would be joyless and miserable, reminding myself of the regrettable things I’d done while drunk, telling myself that I was a piece-of-garbage human who had wasted years of my life drinking, doing drugs and now, watching Frasier.
There are many reasons why people in early recovery may experience insomnia. For one, we’ve grown dependent on drugs or alcohol to fall asleep. It can take the body some time to adjust to a normal, non-chemically induced sleep cycle. In addition, whatever psychological difficulties propelled us to drink in the first place—in my case, mainly anxiety and insomnia—tend to resurface without alcohol or drugs to stuff them down.
For me, it took about six months before I achieved a relatively “normal” sleep schedule, and I still experienced occasional bouts of insomnia. But when I did sleep, it was glorious.
Hours and hours of uninterrupted slumber. I started dreaming again. And waking up without a hangover was bliss. On weekend mornings, I would bound out of bed like a kid on Christmas and wander around my neighborhood in Brooklyn, just enjoying my existence as a hydrated human with no headache and no apologies to make.
It was a few years into my recovery that my sleeping issues just slowly disappeared. Maybe it was being too tired from having a full-time job and busy schedule. Maybe it was my cocktail of 12-step meetings, therapy, medication, exercise and Netflix. And I’m still not “chill.” But at some point, I grew into a person who does not dread bedtime at all, who regularly gets eight hours of sleep a night. Sometimes I even fall asleep on friends’ couches or in movie theaters or at my desk at work.
I’m a goddamn sleeping champion. And I still find time to watch Frasier.
Do you have an addiction? It’s not unlikely. Human beings are wired to seek pleasure. And most of us—if not all of us—are hooked on something. For some of us, it’s drugs or alcohol. Scary! If so, you’re probably pretty familiar with shame, secrecy or guilt, what with the media shrieking about Lindsay Lohan’s coke problem and celebrity DUIs and the latest designer drug to shield your kids from, at all costs.
But though media fear-mongering, with a little help from the DARE program, has trained us to think of illicit drugs, certain aspects of alcohol use (underage drinking, drunk driving, binging alone) and, in recent years, smoking as bad and shameful, not all addictions are seen as taboo.
One way to think of addiction is as an extreme level of dedication to an activity—which is something our culture accepts, and even celebrates. Replace crack or cigarettes or booze with other activities or substances, and your peers might regard you quite differently.
Here are a few addictions that are so widely accepted in the US that they could even make you a hero in the eyes of your fellow Americans:
In most big cities in the USA, you can’t walk 10 blocks without passing a Starbucks. And at this iconic caffeine-dispensing Mecca, even the smallest drink on the menu is “tall.” In America, we like our coffee by the gallon. We guzzle it all day long out of necessity and for pleasure. We proudly call ourselves “coffee addicts” and “caffeine junkies.”
Sometimes we go to sleep just thinking about that first morning cup.
Caffeine is an addictive, mood-altering drug of course. Most routine coffee drinkers experience some form of withdrawal if they go cold turkey. But unlike other drugs, caffeine makes us feel like we’re contributing to society. Like we have an important reason to be awake. I need this coffee because if I don’t stay alert, society will come crumbling down, we think. I drink coffee. I am important.
In college I once drank so much coffee while studying all night for an exam that the room started spinning—I had to lie down on my back for three hours with a cold press on my forehead until it passed. I was so proud of this story, I told everyone about it. No one sat me down and said “May, we’re worried about you. You might have a problem. Please get help.”
They just continued to get coffee with me.
2) Our Phones
Most of us are accustomed to walking into a restaurant or a subway car to a sea of downturned faces, bathed in the soft glow of a handheld communication device. Much has been said and written about the way smartphones and tablets are decimating our attention spans and isolating us from each other in the real world, even as we attempt to “connect” with other people in a digital realm.
Smartphones provide an escape, much like a drug. Whether we’re cruising Facebook or crushing candy or choosing the perfect Instagram filter, these devices offer us a porthole into a digital world that is simple, colorful and easy to manipulate. And thus, highly addictive.
But even if we let our devices separate us from friends and family in social settings; even if we get into a car accident from texting and driving; even if our Candy Crush habit cleans out our bank account, most of us smartphone addicts won’t raise eyebrows or prompt a tearful intervention from friends and family. In part because they’re probably too busy staring at their own phones to even notice.
Americans are obsessed with working out. Granted, not all of us. Some of us are obsessed with lying as still as we possibly can on our backs while watching Netflix, our laptops balanced on our bulging bellies. But those of us who do hit the gym regularly are treated like gods in the USA. If you have a six-pack of abs right now, you’re no stranger to compliments.
People work out for a variety of reasons. Because we want to look good. Because we’re addicted to the high we get from running 10 miles. Because we’re running away from our pasts. Because we believe if we achieve seven percent body fat, we will finally be able to receive and accept love. Because we feel powerful, standing in front of a full-length mirror flexing our enormous biceps and saying out loud “How do you like me now, you middle school bullies?”
Sometimes we take steroids or protein powders with 8,000 ingredients to enhance our work outs. We might spend hours at the gym every day. We might run 26.5 mile marathons, causing shin splints and other injuries.
But it seems like the more we work out, the flatter and harder our bodies, the more likely strangers will stop us on the street to say “How did you get that body?”
4) “Healthy” Eating
It’s no major revelation that the USA has a junk food problem. Gorging on McDonalds has earned us a global reputation as a country full of overweight couch potatoes. Whether or not our soaring rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease are primarily related to food addiction remains controversial. But either way, most of us aren’t exactly proud of our fast food habits.
But food addiction and obsession takes many forms that are socially accepted and rewarded.
The billion dollar diet industry takes advantage of Americans’ desire to lose weight, at their doctors’ and/or the media’s persistent urging. Bottled, packaged, processed products of all color and texture are touted as a “healthier” alternative to regular meals.
We count calories. We grind our food to a pulp and drink it through a straw and call it “juicing.” We cut carbs. We cut gluten. We drink lemon juice and cayenne pepper, because Judy from accounting said it helped her lose 10 pounds in two weeks for her sister’s wedding. We compulsively discuss, blog about and photograph our meals as if they were our beauty pageant contestant daughters.
Fat or thin, many Americans are obsessed with food and addicted to talking and thinking about it. But unless we take it so far that we end up hospitalized, most of us just consider this form of addiction as normal and American as apple pie. With a side of dairy-free soy iced cream.
Are you a workaholic? Congratulations! You’re living the American dream. Your boss loves you. You have money in your bank account and maybe even a mortgage and life insurance. You have the admiration and envy of your peers (and high school bullies). Your kids respect you, even though they hardly ever see you.
Many American workers scoff at the term “nine to five” because we haven’t left the office at 5 pm in our entire lives. And when our butts aren’t glued to our desk chairs, we’re “always online.” Checking emails from our iPhones on the treadmill at the gym. Conference calling in from the beach in Hawaii on our family vacations.
We may piss off a few people in our lives, due to negligence. Our partners may be seeking intimacy elsewhere, since we’re never home. And one day in therapy our kids might talk about how they are struggling to form bonds with other human beings due to their parent’s absence. But that’s okay, because we can afford to pay for their therapy with all the money we made working, working, working.
Also, we never worry about this stuff. Because we don’t have time to worry. We have too much work to do.
Robin Williams died this week. He was 63. His death, reportedly a suicide by asphyxia, serves as a stark reminder of the insidiousness of addiction and mental illness.
As an actor and comedian, Williams was both legendary and beloved. Among many other memorable roles, he was the goofy dad-in-drag in Mrs. Doubtfire; he was the genie in Alladin; he was a lovable alien in Mork and Mindy; he was the empathetic therapist in Good Will Hunting, for which he won an Oscar. He could oscillate between gut-wrenchingly funny and heart-achingly sincere—both on screen and off.
Williams was also a powerful voice for the addiction community. A recovering cocaine addict and alcoholic who spent much of his life sober, his eloquence, honesty and humor on the subject were unparalleled—both in his stand-up comedy and with the press. ”[Addiction is] not caused by anything, it’s just there,” he said on Good Morning America in 2006. “It waits. It lays in wait for the time when you think, ‘It’s fine now, I’m OK.’ Then, the next thing you know, it’s not OK. Then you realize, ‘Where am I? I didn’t realize I was in Cleveland.’”
Months before that interview, Williams had checked himself into rehab after 20 years of sobriety. He said that his return to drinking had been “very gradual” and that he’d convinced himself he could have “just one” drink, though “the idea of just one for someone who has no tolerance for it, that’s not the possibility.”
In an interview with the Guardian around the same time, he spoke candidly about the circumstances of his relapse, which took place while he was on location in Alaska. “I was in a small town where it’s not the edge of the world, but you can see it from there, and then I thought: drinking. I just thought, hey, maybe drinking will help. Because I felt alone and afraid,” he said. ”And you think, oh, this will ease the fear. And it doesn’t.”
In his youth, he battled with an addiction to cocaine—which he famously described as “God’s way of saying you’re making too much money”—as well as alcohol. He eventually got sober in his mid-thirties, before the birth of his first son and after fatal overdose of his friend, John Belushi. Williams did it “on his own, without any help,” as he later explained in an interview (video below). “After I quit drinking, I realized I am the same asshole I always was,” he once quipped. “I just have fewer dents in my car.”
Though he drank again almost two decades later, he said he never returned to cocaine, out of fear it would kill him. Still, after his relapse, things spiraled: “For that first week you lie to yourself, and tell yourself you can stop, and then your body kicks back and says, no, stop later. And then it took about three years, and finally you do stop.”
Ultimately, a family intervention led him to seek inpatient treatment. “You think people don’t notice,” he said. “Then you find out later, ‘We knew. … You went outside naked.’ No, I didn’t. But even the dog was like, ‘What’s wrong, boy?’ Humiliation gives you humility.”
That 2006 relapse transformed his view of whether it was possible to address his addiction on his own. ”But you can’t. That’s the bottom line,” he said. “You really think you can, then you realize, I need help, and that’s the word … It’s hard admitting it, then once you’ve done that, it’s real easy.” After getting sober for the second time, he attended 12-step meetings.
Just last month, Williams checked himself into into Hazelden treatment center. Rumors of another relapse were denied by his publicist, who claimed he simply wanted to “fine-tune and focus on his continued commitment [to sobriety], of which he remains extremely proud.”
His death yesterday came as a shock to a lot of people. His enormous fan base knew him as a gregarious, energetic and brilliantly funny performer, who seemed to fully give himself to every role he played—whether it was an Oscar-worthy film or a failing sitcom. In the hours following his death, the Internet has lit up with firsthand accounts of his kindness, patience and generosity to his fans.
His death has also inspired a wave of awareness about addiction and mental illness, with many people responding to his death by posting about their own battles with addiction and depression. Messages like “I’ve struggled, too” and ”you’re not alone” abound on Facebook and Twitter. Comedian Chris Gethard posted a photo of himself during a bout of depression, captioned: ”This is the face of my mental illness, and I’m ok with you seeing it. #NoShame #RIPRobinWilliams”
At the end of his Guardian interview in 2006, Williams was asked if he was happy. He replied, ”I think so. And not afraid to be unhappy. That’s OK too. And then you can be like, all is good. And that is the thing, that is the gift.”
The following article first appeared on Substance.com:
Are you having a hard time meeting people on OKCupid, Tinder, or in the real world because your love of weed is a deal-breaker? Does he find your extensive bong collection a buzz-kill? Or did she harsh your mellow when she asked, “Cheech who?”
Fear not, lonely tokers-looking-for-love, you don’t have to smoke alone forever: My420mate.com is a new dating site promising to help you meet the one who won’t be put off by your passion for pot—because they share it. ”Everyone you meet in our community is guaranteed to be accepting of the 420 lifestyle,” promises the website, which is billed as “The #1 Online Dating Community for Cannabis Lovers!” The community is “full of people from all walks of life who seek to live and share a relaxed lifestyle and outlook on life,” says founder Miguel A. Lozano.
The site’s pot pun-friendly motto is “plant your seed and watch your love grow” and it seems love is blooming already. Testimonials suggest that a few cannabis couples have already been matched through the site. Says Greg L.: “Being a medical marijuana patient, it has been hard to find someone accepting of my lifestyle. Thanks to My420Mate, i have found that special someone.”
If you’re just a casual cannabis user, the website welcomes you, too. The community is “not just for stoners” and also includes “professionals, laborers, doctors, lawyers and other singles who are all 420 friendly.” Founders say they are optimistic about the future of legal marijuana and they expect more states to follow in the footsteps of Colorado and Washington. But in the meantime, we all know love doesn’t have to be legal to be real.
It didn’t make me paranoid, like pot. It didn’t make me black out, like drinking. Unlike smoking, it didn’t ruin my teeth and lungs and cause me to have nervous breakdowns in front of funeral homes: CVS-brand cinnamon-flavored nicotine gum was my perfect drug.
But I gave it up, and I hardly even know why.
As a smoker, I obsessed constantly over my own mortality. By 2011, thanks to Bloomberg, you couldn’t walk a block in New York City without seeing graphic images of decomposing organs and rotting teeth posted in subways and outside delis. Oh god, I’m going to die! I would think, walking past yet another blackened lung.
As a kid I got so nervous in certain social situations that my hands shook—you can’t climb the social ladder with shaky hands. I smoked my first ever cigarette at 16 and it drained the anxiety and fear right out of me. I felt edgy and aloof and cool—for a teen who wore too much corduroy and raised her hand too often in class, this was a new feeling.
“Wanna step outside?” and “Can I bum one?” is how countless new friendships are forged. A pack of Marlboro Lights in my back pocket instilled me with a sense of swagger. I liked the way smoking made me feel like I looked—leaning against a wall, a lit cigarette dangling from my lips, just like, Whatever—I don’t care if I live or die.
But that’s not me, not really. I care an excessive amount about whether I live or die. I would like death to be postponed as long as possible, and with no pain and suffering, please. I was always Googling questions like, “Can you die from smoking if you quit before you’re 30?” But the Internet offered no conclusive answers. I was left imagining a slow and gory end. Doctors would have to chop out parts of my body, one at a time, until I was just a pile of yellow teeth and tar-scented hair.
One cruel irony of smoking is that it momentarily eliminated certain of my anxieties while replacing them with a morbid dread of disease and death. Yet I smoked on and off—socially, anti-socially—for the better part of a decade. Toward the end I was in a constant state of anxiety that I could not smoke away.
So I quit. It was awful. I cried on the subway and raged at work. When I ran out of reasons to be angry at my co-workers, I got angry about things that happened on Facebook, or in my childhood, or in the news. I stuffed my mouth with fruit and gummy candy and whatever was in reach. In social situations, I had no idea what to do with my hands. So I avoided social situations. I manically chewed my way through two or three packs of Dentyne a day.
I eventually grew to love being a non-smoker: I didn’t gasp for air after climbing a flight of stairs. Fourth-floor walk-up apartments stopped being a reason to turn down a dinner invitation. My hair smelled like hair! It felt good just to breathe. And food tasted so good. When I ate, my tastebuds sang. I ate, and ate, and ate. I gained five pounds. The crying came back.
About six months later I started smoking again because I started seeing someone. Smoking made me feel sexy, even though the guy I was seeing thought smoking was disgusting. I quit again. Then I re-started because I had a writing deadline.
So I bought my first box of nicotine gum, for $42. I’d always been too cheap to go that route—a faulty rationale, given the cost of smoking in New York. Plus, my lungs and teeth are probably worth at least $42. So I chose CVS-brand cinnamon nicotine gum, 2 mg. At first, the cashier refused since I didn’t have ID with me. But I begged, and she must have seen the panic, desperation and rage in my eyes.
This time, quitting smoking was easier. I fell for nicotine gum as hard as I had fallen for cigarettes. It became my mouth’s constant companion. I loved the instant kick of nicotine as I first bit down, the chewing, the sweetness, the secrecy—My gum is not like your gum. It is special. It is drug-gum.
Sometimes people would see me chewing and ask me for a piece of gum—assuming I was some normal Orbitz-chewing plebeian, not a secret ex-smoker with top-shelf shit. People were usually surprised, and a little impressed. “I smoked for 10 years!” I would brag. If smoking was cool, quitting was cooler.
I used the gum for 90 days as recommended. But then, instead of weaning off the gum, I upgraded to the 4 mg variety—same cost, twice the kick! I found no reason to “wean” off it other than a feeble suggestion written on the side of the box. There is no conclusive evidence that nicotine, on its own, has even modest health risks. It’s a stimulant—so it may cause a slight increase in blood pressure and heart rate. But the benefits far outweigh the risks: increased attention span, reduced anxiety, and improved memory have all been linked to nicotine use. Another known side-effect is weight loss. So basically, it’s a goddamned miracle, is what it is. I was addicted to the perfect drug.
But I was still addicted.
I slept with a piece in my mouth, and woke up craving it. My life revolved around obtaining it—ensuring I had enough to get me through the day. If I got down to my few last pieces, I’d feel a surge of panic that didn’t subside until I could get to the store for my next box. No one cast accusatory glances at me on the street for chewing gum, as they had with smoking. But I could swear I was getting judgmental side-eye from the cashiers at CVS who rang up my preferred brand of “smoking cessation aid,” week after week. I started going uptown, to a different CVS.
On a weekend trip to Montauk last summer, my stash ran out as we were on our way back to the city. Stuck in traffic, it took us seven hours to drive back and we stopped at multiple gas stations—none of which sold nicotine gum. It was 85 degrees and the air conditioner in the car didn’t work. I felt anxious and physically ill. I ate my way through a box of Hot Tamales and one of those enormous deli muffins made out of couch cushions, but it didn’t help. I thought about smoking again. I almost bought a pack of “Snus” but had no idea what it was, how it works, or if it even contained nicotine.
I live nowhere near a CVS, so when I got home that night, miserably, I went to sleep. No gum in my mouth. I haven’t had a piece since. The next day, I decided to continue riding out the withdrawal—just to see if I could, and because I never wanted to go through that again. The next day at work I was nauseated, headachey and seething in silent, venomous rage. The withdrawal took about 48 hours, and when it was over, I felt like a war hero.
To fill the gaping emotional void, I chewed regular cinnamon gum and sucked on ginger chews and scrolled relentlessly through my Facebook feed. I started grinding my teeth in times of stress—sometimes loudly, and in public. I went from two to four cups of coffee a day. I sucked Diet Dr. Pepper through a straw. I started crying on the subway, again. I played Tetris on my phone. I got hooked on 12 different podcasts and carried snacks to eat while walking places. I have yet to recover from any of these addictions, and—unlike nicotine—some of them are destroying my mind and possibly converting my cells into toxic waste. A year later, I still miss my drug-gum every day.
I recently confessed to my therapist that I’m thinking of taking up nicotine gum again, even though I haven’t smoked in three years. “It quells my anxiety,” I explained.
She responded, earnestly: “You know, they have medication for that.” Yes, I know.
The following article first appeared on Substance.com:
In college and throughout my early twenties, my friends and peers would often regale me with stories of things I had done during blackouts. It is not entirely out of the ordinary, in college, to engage in erratic, illogical and sometimes shameful behavior under the influence of alcohol. No one seemed to find it strange that I would forget so much, and so often. I was just another run-of-the-mill college student with a nightly case of amnesia.
“Do you remember getting up on the counter at McDonald’s? And tossing ketchup packets up in the air?”
“Do you remember singing ‘Like a Prayer’ onstage at that karaoke bar?”
“Do you remember walking home with a traffic cone on your head?”
No, but that is hilarious!
“Do you remember swinging from my hanging lamp while pretending to be Tarzan?”
I never did that.
“Yes, you did.”
I almost never remembered anything other than occasional snippets filtered through a thick haze. I was a blackout drinker from the first time I ever got drunk at 16, and my blackouts would cut broad swathes of time right out of my memory, ranging from an hour to an entire night.
After waking up the next day, I would search my immediate surroundings for physical clues. Ketchup packets in the bottom of my bag. Photos of me as a tiny blur onstage, holding a microphone. A ticket stub in my pocket, a stamp on my hand. Mostly I relied on other people’s stories to fill the empty spaces in my memory. No matter how intently I focused, or how long I waited, these black holes remained, dark and unforgiving.
I once approximated that I blacked out an average of three and a half nights a week during my drinking career (twice a week in college and four or five nights a week in the four years after college, before I got sober). If I lost an average of two hours a night, that’s about seven hours a week, 52 weeks a year. Over 10 years of boozing, from age 16 to 26, I must have accrued over 3,600 hours–or 151 days–of forgotten time. That’s five months—enough time to pen a novel or hike the Appalachian Trail. What I did, essentially, was take a very long intermittent nap (or coma), while turning over full control of my body to my most impulsive and animalistic instincts.
A blackout is also known as alcohol-related amnesia, though it’s not so much that you forget what happened the night before. The memory doesn’t go missing—it just never gets made in the first place. Alcohol doesn’t actually “kill brain cells,” like some people believe, but it stomps all over receptors in your brain—specifically the prefrontal cortex, which controls rational thinking, and the temporal cortex, which houses the hippocampus, where short-term (one minute or less) memories are processed into long-term memories.
The more you drink, the more you risk blacking out, though blood alcohol content is the crucial factor. So three glasses of wine on an empty stomach might black you out, but six glasses over the course of a three-course meal might not. Personally, I would usually opt for the six glasses and skip the meal entirely.
In a blackout, you can still process information. You’re not a word-slurring zombie, or passed out in the corner (yet). But you’re not making any new memories to hold on to tomorrow, or anytime in the future. So when I got wasted, I could still communicate with other people, move through the world semi-functionally, hail a cab or sing karaoke. I just wouldn’t remember it the next day.
This meant my life was often full of surprises. Freshman year I once woke up in my dorm room in bed with a traffic cone. I sensed its presence before I saw what it was, tucked under the covers beside me. I lay there, frozen for an hour or more, waiting for it to wake up and leave. I just assumed it was a person–woman, man, friend or stranger. I was relieved that it wasn’t.
My junior year of college I turned 21 and my roommates threw me a birthday party. I went to school in Montreal, where the drinking age is 18, so the alcohol milestone was arbitrary. But I mainly drank for arbitrary reasons—celebration or loss, excitement or boredom. If I had a headache or heartache, I drank over the pain. If I did well on a paper, I toasted my success. Made it through another Tuesday? Bottoms up!
The morning after my birthday party, I woke up in all my clothes, and wondered if anyone had showed up to my party the night before. I played over possible scenarios in my head, ranging from benign to horrifying.
My roommate knocked on my door and dragged me to his room and pointed to his bed. Just inches above the bedspread dangled a mangled object that had once been a very elaborate, multi-tiered “Chinese” lantern from Ikea. The lamp was severely disfigured, the cord mutilated and stretched out.
“Do you remember this?” he asked, in that tone people always used with me–accusatory, and slightly amused.
I shook my head. I didn’t remember anything after downing two bottles of wine–one white, one red–on an empty stomach, before any of the guests showed up. I didn’t remember stealing a pair of large shoes from my hallway and stomping around the city, yelling at strangers, falling down in the snow. I didn’t remember passing out in an elevator after riding it to the top floor. I didn’t remember my guests mobilizing a search party, scouring the streets in party hats. My roommate’s girlfriend, Julie, finally found me on the fourth floor of a neighbor’s apartment building. She carried me back to the party where she lay me down on my roommate’s bed. I didn’t remember that either, or my girlfriend pounding the bed by my comatose head, shouting “I thought you had died!” and wailing like a character in a Spanish telenovela.
That’s when I woke up, or so I was told. Then I stood up, took hold of my roommate’s “Chinese” lantern, which had taken him hours to assemble, yelled “I’m Tarzan!” and swung myself off the bed and into a heap on the floor, and promptly fell back asleep.
All of this was recounted to me the next day by roommates and girlfriend and lingering overnight guests. The story, as my exploits often were, was loud and funny and colorful. But the underlying narrative was always the same: You got drunk; you ran away; you made a mess; you kissed somebody; you stole something; you put something on your head; you broke stuff; you made someone cry.
This eventually stopped when I quit drinking at 26. Since the drinking stopped, I find that I break things less often. I have never run away while out with friends: If I want to leave, I usually say goodbye first and then walk—not sprint—home. I don’t steal, and rarely wear inanimate objects as hats—especially those intended for traffic safety. But whatever it is I do, I remember all of it. My narratives are my own to be retold.
But the past I can’t recover. All I have to remember my 21st birthday is a bizarre collage of moments, recollected and pinned together by other people–this and my roommate’s Ikea lamp. He gave it to me as a birthday gift, misshapen and deformed. But not broken, which struck me as somewhat of a miracle.
Maya Angelou has passed away at age 86. The globally revered author, poet and activist was a powerful voice of hope for the oppressed and disenfranchised, and her story speaks to anyone who has risen from a dark place.
Angelou documented her life in her series of seven autobiographies. The first—I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings(1969)—made her an internationally-acclaimed author and a symbol of overcoming struggle. In her books, she discussed growing up in the South during Jim Crow, and wrote frankly about being raped by her mother’s boyfriend when she was a child. She later worked as a brothel madam and a sex worker.
She also “flirted,” in her late teens and early twenties, with drugs. In Gather Together in My Name (1974), she described a pivotal moment when a friend made her watch him shoot up heroin, and it dissuaded her from continuing down that path: “He slouched, nodding, his mouth open and the saliva sliding down his chin as slowly as the blood had flowed down his arm,” she wrote. “I had walked the precipice and seen it all; and at the critical moment, one man’s generosity pushed me safely away from the edge.”
Angelou wrote more than 30 books, won numerous awards, and was honored last year by the National Book Awards for her service to the literary community. In 2010, President Barack Obama awarded her the Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. ”Look where we’ve all come from … coming out of darkness, moving toward the light,” she once said. “It is a long journey, but a sweet one, bittersweet.”
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