The Permission of Alcohol
It was 8:45 a.m., only 12 hours until my mother and my stepfather were to return home from their week-long vacation in Canada. When she called me that morning on May 15th, 2016, my mother had unexpected news.
My stepfather Jeff had suffered a heart attack, and he was dead.
He was 53 years old. This past September would have been my mother and Jeff’s three-year wedding anniversary, not counting their 10 years together as a couple.
All I remember is asking, “What? What happened? What did you just say?”
I paced around the house for about an hour or so, trying to figure out what was going on. I was home, alone. The more I saw Jeff’s pictures around me the more my anger escalated. I threw all of the refrigerator magnets across the room and punched the dining room table.
Jeff was more than a stepfather to me. He was the dad I had never had.
Days after his passing, my brother-in-law and a friend of Jeff’s told me that Jeff had always spoken of me as if I were his child. He worried about me, was maybe disappointed with some of my life choices. But at the end of the day, he was always proud.
I immediately went to therapy the week Jeff died. I had been to therapy before, but this time I knew it would be different. It would be more painful.
Within minutes, my therapist was guiding me through the process of grief and the stages I was experiencing, as well as the ones that were likely to arrive—Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Acceptance. For the first week, I slept in for 10 to 12 hours, not wanting to deal with anything or anyone. I had a difficult time writing and ended up losing two jobs due to flat-out not caring about anything.
It was a sad time, and the rest of Summer 2016 was painful and scary. Every time I thought This can’t get any worse, it did.
Losing someone close, especially unexpectedly, leads most people to find comfort in unimagined things.
In the weeks after Jeff died, I forced myself to go out with my friends, sometimes going to bars and clubs or a kickback at someone’s house. I hated it, but I felt sadder staying home. Ironically, I also felt terrible going out. One night I drank too much and realized it was 2:00 in the morning, then felt terrified because Jeff had been an early bird. In my mind, he would turn the corner at any minute like he always did between 2:00 and 3:00 a.m.. He had always gone to bed early and woken up early. That morning I started working out to burn off the alcohol, but seeing pictures of Jeff and all of the sympathy cards and flowers around me, I snapped and ended up punching the speedometer screen of the workout machine. That scared the family cat away and woke up my mother. I know she saw the empty booze bottle on the counter and could smell the alcohol as we hugged. She was not angry, but she wanted me to come to bed.
That was my first meltdown. Only a few weeks later I attended a friend’s going away party on Ibuprofen and an empty stomach. Long story short, I got profoundly drunk and blacked-out for most of the night.
The night had started off like any other: I thought I was just another 20-something who wanted to hang out and drink with friends. Then my new reality sank in. That following Monday and Tuesday I had a funeral to attend. A friend’s little sister had suddenly passed. She was only 12, and though I had only met her twice, I had treasured memories of bonding with this girl in her short life.
I began to drunk-text, drunk-dial, and then drunk-snapchat a guy. By the time I got home, I was mortified for being that drunk girl. In the driveway at home I saw Jeff’s truck and burst into tears. The alcohol was forcing me to relive everything.
I cried more in the shower, ashamed of my emotional state. I woke up the next day with a hangover and the arrival of my period. I felt sick. My mother was amused. When some family stopped by later that day, including Jeff’s two children, Mom announced to everyone that I was hungover. They thought it was funny, too.
For months, all I could think about myself was trainwreck.
The last time I went out to a bar, I came home the next morning, threw up, and cried as soon as my mother saw me and asked me if I was okay.
I told her I was not okay.
I told her I just wanted the year to end.
I had ended up staying in for the rest of my Friday and Saturday nights that year. When I did go out, I started leaving sooner to come home.
On Father’s Day, on my way home from a luncheon with my mother, I started crying and venting. Mom was driving, and I was very drunk. It was the first holiday without Jeff. I sat in the truck for awhile when we got home, then decided to take one of his work shirts into the house. I fell asleep with it on the floor, still crying and wondering when the hell of my emotional roller coaster would end. I punched the floor when I woke up to find my Jeff’s empty work shirt beside me.
That was a very rough day during a very painful summer. The entire year was like a nightmare.
The role of alcohol during that year was far from positive, but with time I’ve started to see it as not entirely without value. Being drunk loosened the grip shame had on me, and that Father’s Day I had truly wept in front of my mother for the first time. It was something that I had dreaded and held inside since Jeff’s death. Drunk me was able to apologize to my mother, to spill out how I wanted to be strong for her, to tell her I could not imagine how much she was hurting. Of course, the irony was I didn’t have to imagine. I felt it, too.
It took multiple grief counseling sessions for me to grasp that grief and alcohol are common hand-in-hand companions to grief. I grew up with an alcoholic, and that experience ratched up my anxiety and fear each time I felt the pull of bars and clubs after Jeff died.
I can say now, months after speaking my truth in grief counseling, that every one of us is allowed to just grieve. I didn’t realize that. It was my going out to feel like a “normal twenty-something” that forced me to be honest with other people and with myself. I had to admit that I was in pain over many things, including the death of my step-father and my friend’s sister but not only those things. The one-year anniversaries of their deaths will be this summer. I do not know what I will feel on those days, not exactly. But I do know I have tools now, ways I can cope when I feel deep moments of sadness, ways that do not require drinking.
For a long time, I had a difficult time believing what everyone told me, that things would get better; yet I am seeing my life move toward better. It feels like improvement to begin to understand it’s vital to tell people how I feel. It’s not whether I tell them they make me happy, or angry, or sad. I just need to tell them, because I can’t know when or even if I will hear from them again. I know I don’t need to be ashamed for having an emotion about someone or something. I don’t need alcohol to give me permission to feel. I don’t need alcohol to give me permission to connect. I don’t need alcohol’s permission for anything.
Natalie Rodriguez is a writer and filmmaker from Southern California. She graduated with her B.A. in TV-Film from California State University, Fullerton (CSUF). Her work has been featured on various venues, including The Huffington Post and Winamop Poetry. She is currently in the late development stage of a feature film, The Extraordinary Ordinary, that revolves around young adults, mental health, and recovery awareness. Follow her on Twitter, @NatChrisRod.