by Danielle Tcholakian: 2021 was, in the rearview, better than any of the years in which I’d been able to hide…
2021 was, objectively, not a great year for most people living on this planet. It also happened to be the first full calendar year of my life that I spent sober, having realized in 2020 that I had a problem. It was not a year I would’ve expected to get through rawdogging reality, as it were, or even really to get through at all.
The truth is that most of my drinking and using had one primary purpose: to allow me to feel less. To be less aware. To not have to live in my own brain or settle for the reality of living in the world as myself. To hide from how overwhelmed I was by seemingly everything.
So it’s a little unbelievable that a year in which I was forced to feel things all the time, to be aware of all of it, and to, the whole time, be stuck being me—what seemed like a truly disgusting option—was, in the rearview, better than any of the years in which I’d been able to hide.
It pains me even to write or talk like this now, and that’s a huge part of it. I hated myself—really despised this bitch—for so much of my life, and I don’t anymore. This isn’t a bad brain! It’s a goofy, loving, often uncooperative, mess of a brain in a goofy, loving, messy, still-figuring-a-lot-of-really-elementary-stuff-out person that I mostly don’t mind being anymore. That I often actually enjoy being.
My life before sobriety wasn’t all bad. But most days, for at least five years, I fought with a panicked, angry voice in my head that said I needed to die. The end of 2019 saw me in a Medicaid clinic with a medical resident younger than me patiently going over a list of questions he was required to ask of depressed patients. I explained that yes, I wanted to kill myself, but it was just logical. I was a burden—on people, on systems. I had drained my own resources attempting to resolve a depression that had ultimately been deemed “treatment resistant,” and now here I was, on Medicaid and unable to work. I can’t work so I should die was a deeply American logic I had internalized, and in my frustration at his obtuse refusal to agree that I was simply being practical, I began to cry.
At first, the resident said, “But you know that’s just your depression, right? That’s the only reason you think that.” And I snapped, no—the depression was the physical heaviness, the brain fog, the constant hunger for sleep, the excruciating fucking unending psychological pain. I believed the knowledge that I was better off dead was just that: knowledge; reason.
He looked at me differently, then paused and said something like, “I’m sorry you’re feeling that. I hope you can believe me when I say that it isn’t true. And you shouldn’t feel this way. We will find you resources.” I sobbed then, cracked open by the discovery that the only thing that hurt worse than the pain I’d been in was getting precisely what I didn’t realize I’d been craving: human kindness, and hope. I stopped drinking and using soon after.
My first year featuring sobriety, 2020, was not the best year of my life. I did very little. For at least four months, I watched New Girl from beginning to end, over and over. I would get to the series finale and immediately restart the pilot, day after day after day. Unending weeks. Truly: months. And I laughed at the jokes still? I texted a friend once to ask, “Am I brain damaged?”
It seemed unfathomable that 2021, my first calendar year sober, could then be the best year of my life. So much of my drinking and drug use was fueled by a desire to be less aware. The idea that I was acutely present for every waking minute of this year, and that somehow that it not only didn’t kill me but left me feeling the luckiest I’ve ever been, was unimaginable.
I slogged through so many feelings, so many realizations, so many excavations of deep old festering shitty wounds. I started running to air them out. I took walks down my friends’ dead end dirt road in the tiny town I’d escaped to in Western New York and wept and sometimes yelled out loud at people who weren’t there. I was not graceful. But over and over, pushing forward through these feelings that I previously would’ve poured alcohol over got me to a place I couldn’t have understood.
One example: My Google Docs is full of half-started stories and interviews that I never managed to turn into something publishable, never managed to turn in. Text Edit docs litter my computer: “so-and-so friendship interview,” “essay for x,” “article for y”—a horrifyingly populous graveyard of failures that has haunted me for years. I would think about these half-starts constantly, think about the editors I’d interacted with and sometimes flaked on, about the story subjects who I’d let down, whose time I wasted, and be so mind-bendingly embarrassed I would want to throw up. I would spiral into certainty about what a failure I was, what a humiliating joke it was that I kept trying to do this job that I was clearly so fucking bad at. Look at this fucking coward, I would think. This weak, worthless, talentless little nothing.
Then one day it struck me that in a different light, all those documents aren’t proof of my being a failure. Every single one was evidence of strength, of the unbelievable fact that despite how hard everything was, despite how deep the hole, I kept fucking trying. And instead of hating my past self, and being so unbearably mortified by her weakness and sickness, I felt this huge flood of gratitude and even admiration. What a brave, strong person. What a stunning thing, to wake up every day with your brain trying to kill you, and still do an interview. Still try to pitch something. Still write something up. Still still still keep trying. Each one is a grasp at staying alive, and in that I succeeded. An unequivocal success, you know? Here I am.
I started thinking about failure differently. I can even sense a difference when I’m having what I’ve started referring to as an old thought. In recovery, from addiction and trauma and mental health generally, there’s a lot of talk about neural pathways. Maladaptive behaviors create what I imagine to be rutted little canals in our wiring, like scratched up dive bar tables (yes, hi, I’m Danielle, and I’m an alcoholic). Imagine rolling a marble along, and of course it slips, over and over, into the gouged out routes carved over years. For me, the routes were the horrible ways I talked to myself in my head and thought about myself. They were impulses like, leave before they want you to, and constantly looking to other people to figure out my worth, often seeking out the people least inclined to affirm it. They were the ambitions and beliefs that paralyzed me, the desire to be phenomenal and the belief that if I wasn’t – I ought to be dead. The belief that I was helpless and hopeless. It often felt like instead of blood, my body held mostly fear.
Scared and lonely. Those were the biggest things, I discovered. I had a really frightening loneliness that felt fundamental to who I was, like it had maybe been in my body for as long as I’d been alive. And loneliness is tricky, because it’s not bad or unhealthy to want to be with other people. Human animals, in general, are interdependent as a species. But I felt like I needed and wanted so much from other people, and part of it was because I hated myself so much. Imagine spending every day with the person you like least on the entire planet. Of course I wanted someone else around!
And of course I was scared—what I wanted most in the world was other people’s approval, and that was absolutely not something in my control to obtain. And yet, without it, I had no way to feel okay. Other people, though, are some of the most unstable elements in nature. In fact, a common phrase in some sober circles is, What other people think of me is none of my business. Pre-sobriety, the way I coped was getting drunk or high before most social interactions, to dull how acutely anxious I’d feel and turn the volume down on my self-loathing enough to sustain conversation with someone else.
Getting sober in a pandemic meant I had a long runway to taxi before I really had to negotiate sober social interactions. Most of the new people I met were in Zoom rooms online and were predisposed to be kind to me, because we were both trying to stay sober and both acutely aware of how steep that uphill often felt. And then early in 2021, Sylvia and Eric, some friends who had moved out of the city and knew I’d been yearning to do the same, suggested I come up and stay with them for a spell. A month or two, maybe. I could bring my cat. We joked that it would be the first inaugural writers’ retreat—ironic for a writer who happened to not be writing, and wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to again.
So I rented a car and I drove, with a furious cat, four hours away from New York City to a tiny regional airport where Sylvia was waiting to drive me the rest of the way. They’d set up a room for me in a house so perfect that I was a little awed. And the next day I woke up feeling new, and I wrote.
It was just a little newsletter, but I wrote it so happily. And then I wrote another, and another. At some point I joked, is this momentum? Consistency? Foreign concepts. The conceit was that it was a bad newsletter—a way to free myself from the fearful perfectionism that had hobbled me.
Almost immediately I began joking: Wouldn’t it be so funny if I just didn’t leave? Sylvia’s mother came over and immediately upon meeting me and said, “Well, you have to stay for the summer!” I snuck a look at my friends, and they were smiling. They cheered on my sobriety, and my writing. Some mornings, if I sent out a newsletter late, I could hear them in their room reading it and laughing, and over breakfast they’d tell me what they’d liked. Eric made delicious dinners, and I felt like a raccoon who’d been taken in as a rescue, marveling at the lives of people who knew how to eat three meals a day and have a nice home and somehow share it with a messy, fragile, recovering person in the midst of a terrifying pandemic.
Mostly, they lived their lives and gave me the chance to figure out mine — something I frequently panicked I didn’t know how to do and which they demonstrated a patience about that I learned from. They let me heal, which was often not a graceful process nor very attractive to witness. There was a lot of going on crying walks where I yelled at no one present, coming back splotchy and anxious and angry and scared. Especially at first. Eventually, I got a job as a bartender (weird choice for a newly sober person, I know). Sylvia and Eric let me use their car until I’d saved up enough money to buy my own, which they went with me to do, with Eric test driving the car with me and coaching my price negotiations like a classic dad. I went into the public library in town and asked about volunteering, and they were hiring, and suddenly I went from no jobs to two jobs. Then somehow, the writing came back into my life—real assignments, not just the intentionally bad newsletter. It was great, but also a lot; and one exhausting week, I came home to find that Sylvia had folded the increasingly intimidating pile of laundry in my room to gift me a little bit of ease.
I met people in this town who welcomed me. It turned out to be a weird, magical place. I went into the library because I wanted to work with teens, to be a Trusted Adult who could maybe make that stressful, painful part of a kid’s life a little less fraught. And the teens? Fucking. Magical. Brilliant! Perfect. On Christmas Eve, one of my teens came in to help me with storytime. No one showed up for storytime, so she tried to teach me to play the ukelele and told me she’s going to build a tiny home in her backyard and she’d like me to live in it. I showed her a packet of Christmas cards I’ve carried around for probably eight years and always forget to actually send, and she said, “Next year, I’ll remind you.” Next year. I guess I live here now.
I guess I have a life now? There’s a book about sobriety that talks about a life beyond our wildest dreams: “A new freedom and a new happiness.” I still feel the same longing when I hear those words in meetings, but now I also feel… a new happiness.
It’s so goofy. It’s embarrassing! I ooze fucking gratitude. All the time, I am so grateful. I just can’t really believe I get to be someone who is happy and grateful to be alive.
These people and this small town in America saved me—or rather, they made it possible for me to save myself.
Do I want to be phenomenal? Yes. Fundamentally. I always have and probably always will. I would love to be the hero who saves and also impresses everyone. The other night I was watching a James Bond movie and unthinkingly told the man I was watching it with, “I always wanted to be James Bond.” I would also like to be a very successful writer. I would like librarians to shelve books with my name on them the way I currently shelve books with others’ names. I would like to matter in a big, grand way.
But more immediately, I would like to be alive to the people around me. I would like to maintain the ability to get through a day feeling mostly solid, mostly of this earth, mostly whole. When I start to panic now—about being a failure, about craving success, about the passage of time, about a ravenous desire to be someone else, someone better and smarter and beautiful—I retreat by nestling not into isolation and a narcotic numbing, but gratitude and community. It’s corny! It’s also so achingly beautiful and nourishing, and it is saving my life minute by minute.