Having been sober since February, I have discovered that the journey is not over, not by a long shot. Rather, it has just begun. The end is not being without alcohol; being booze-free is the beginning of a new, different life. What do I do in this life?
Now that I no longer drink, it does not erase the bad things I have done, like my DUI at nineteen and my fights with my boyfriend and my friends, with my cultivated indifference to other’s feelings, including my own. But no longer drinking does allow me to discover who I really am beneath the tough exterior, to let others discover it as well. I am finding out that I can be a thoughtful person when I am not drinking; the need to impress or deceive has now become the desire to listen and help if I can. My “feeling too much with the world,” the acute observations that I have always held that have caused me to drink, are now the whispers of empathy, which I am realizing is not a weakness, but a strength. I also write more now than I have since I was a child; my brain isn’t foggy and listless in the morning after too much tequila the night before. I can be fun, I think, without the brashness of alcohol, I can be funny at times, I can be a good listener, I can be up for adventure.
Adventure is something I yearn for now. I recall with a wince the ten-day trip that my boyfriend and I took to Mexico a few years ago. It was my first real vacation, my first time out of the country, and I was steadfast in my expectations: the resort would be gorgeous, the room divine, the food exquisite, the weather glorious. My boyfriend and I landed in Cancun, an hour north of where we were staying, to a torrential rainstorm, complete with thunder and lighting. Though raining, the air was humid, thick with the mosquitoes my boyfriend had wrongly told me would not be a problem. (I think I am allergic to mosquitoes. A mosquito bite causes my skin to welt and swell disproportionately, often leaving a scar as a reminder of the unbearable heat and itchiness.) When we arrived at our hotel, the room we had been promised online was not evident. Not only did we not have an ocean view, but we did not have a king-size bed either. Over the course of the trip, we would switch rooms three times until we were finally given the room we had paid for from the beginning.
Our first night, walking through the rain that caused my leather flip-flops to stain and blister the soles of my feet, we discovered that all of the on-site restaurants called for a prior reservation, as well as for male guests to wear pants, not shorts, even though it was eighty degrees at night! Sludging all the way back to our room, which was across the resort, my boyfriend had to change and we were relegated to the “Mexican” restaurant that served Americanized, tasteless dishes rather than the authentic cuisine I had expected. Breakfast in the morning was equally disappointing, as well as some of the adventures we had planned to take. Many advertised activities were not as they initially appeared; a jaunt to Chichen Itza, a nearby monument, was prolonged by an unannounced stop at an “authentic” village, where the bus driver guilted us and the other tourists into buying items from his “family,” a group living in huts and eating what looked like caged chinchillas for dinner.
So, rather than going with the flow, rather than reveling in the blue sky that appeared the following day or jumping on a jet ski (the rental was sixty dollars for an hour), I drank, which was what I had pictured doing on the trip anyway. While my boyfriend’s idea of a vacation was scuba diving, cave swimming, Chichen Itza-climbing and eating at taco trucks (it all sounds wonderful to me now, of course, and we did do all of that), my idea of vacation was lying by the pool or the ocean, drinking frozen margaritas and reading my book. The only activity I really had my heart set on was swimming with dolphins at some point. Instead of compromising, my boyfriend would drag me on exhausting excursions or I would force him to lie by the pool with me; he got so severely sunburned he blistered, the skin angry and red before peeling off in sheets into our bed.
One night near the end of our trip, we argued over dinner at the restaurant where we had finally secured a reservation. I don’t recall what the fight was about, we had both been drinking, but he set off alone to our room, leaving me at our table. Instead of going after him, I stubbornly headed towards the nearby bar, settling in at the counter to drink some more. I don’t remember how I got back to the room later that night, but my boyfriend told me angrily the next morning, as I reddened with shame, that one of the hotel staff had brought me “home.” Without my faculties intact, I realize that the night could have ended in a myriad of horrible ways. I am lucky that it ended the way that it did.
That morning, our last full day in beautiful Mexico, was spent at Xel-Ha, a water park that I had chosen from the beginning because it offered dolphin-swimming. Barely speaking at first, my boyfriend and I had a miserable day, me telling him how sorry I was though my hangover made me feel indifferent, him telling me how sick he was of my shit. Though it was daytime, the mosquitoes were out in droves and I ended up covered in red welts. The dolphin I ended up swimming with was scarred and old, his velvety-yet-smooth skin marred with welts of his own.
Though my trip to Mexico was disastrous in many ways, it was also marvelous. After meeting up with my boyfriend’s parents’ friends who were also in Mexico, the women spent the day snorkeling while the men scuba dove. I was frightened out of my wits by the endless, vast ocean, irritated that my goggles kept fogging up, hungover, annoyed that my boyfriend had dragged me along on another one of his selfish excursions. But then we went to the island of Cozumel and ate the best fish tacos I have ever had in my life, watching the sun set over the water. I saw the ruins of Tulum in all their splendor, saw Chichen Itza though I declined climbing to the top with my boyfriend because I was hungover and tired, swam in cenotes (amazing underground pools of water), held a tiny monkey who tried to steal my hat, and did indeed swim with a dolphin, no matter how depressing it ended up being. Looking back, I realize that the injustices I felt during the trip were because my expectations were not met or because I was hungover or drunk, the latter stemming from my disappointment. Looking back, I wish that I had climbed to the top of Chichen Itza, that I hadn’t been so scared of the depth of the ocean, that I had been excited to explore rather than be frightened of what I didn’t know. Fear and discomfort almost ruined the first big vacation of my life; in many ways, it did ruin it.
I can’t take back what I did or didn’t do on that trip to Mexico, but I could and did behave differently on my trip to Costa Rica this August. I said ‘yes.’ I was open, curious, and willing. I learned to surf, went kayaking in the mangroves, zip-lined through the jungle, hiked waterfalls. Not to say that my boyfriend and I didn’t encounter some lows. We missed our initial connecting flight, causing us to be stuck in Fort Lauderdale for a day and night. My boyfriend lost his wallet on a hike, over $300 and a debit card gone forever. But because we resolved to eliminate our expectations, we had a grand adventure. We ended up having some of the best seafood of our lives in Fort Lauderdale. And, realizing how lucky we were to still have money, we figured whoever had found the wallet probably needed what was inside more than we did.
What has been so heartening to me in this time of uncertainty, of highs and lows, is that the possibilities of my new life and myself are endless. I don’t have to be the outwardly tough girl who is internally wrecked by disappointment. I can take things in stride. I can ascribe to be like Anais Nin wrote: “I must be a mermaid, Rango. I have no fear of depths and a great fear of shallow living.”
The depths of the world do not have to be feared, they can be explored. The “living” I was doing before was mired in fear of both the depths and the shallow end. I didn’t know what I was doing with my life. Though I dislike the word “fear” and the power it’s swayed over my life, I am comfortable with Nin’s use of it here. The fear of shallow living propels you to live, to explore and reach and try and taste. The fear of shallow living alludes to something greater than yourself, to searching, to growing. And I like that.
I wish you a wild, free life.