Updated: Aug 6, 2019
I’ve got a story and I don’t know how to tell it.
Each time I begin, I develop the strong sense that the story isn't over yet. That if I don't wait, I’ll simply be writing it again later, with a level of redundancy that feels unacceptable even for a blog about the same five things every time.
I sometimes forget that “book” and “story” are just metaphors for life, not life itself. I think of people like characters, years like chapters, emotional or transformational moments like climaxes, moments of reflection like falling action. I had been waiting to tell this story until it was approaching resolution.
Maybe we're headed there, maybe not. In the meantime, here’s what I’ve got.
I first read Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A love story in my first stint of sobriety, the fall of 2014. At this time, I was attending recovery meetings regularly for my eating disorder, and my sponsor lightly suggested I attend meetings for alcoholism, too. She didn’t suggest I was alcoholic; she merely said the skills were transferable. (I think she knew I was alcoholic.)
At that time, I didn’t see myself in the people at meetings. For a while - indeed, up until one second ago, when I deleted a misleading sentence - my assumption was that the disease simply hadn’t yet progressed. I didn’t see myself in these people because I wasn’t yet alcoholic. While it’s true that everyone must reach their own bottom, it’s not the case that I didn’t yet “qualify.” I was drinking alcoholically as soon as I was drinking at all. It’s a disease of the mind, diseased thinking - not diseased drinking.
I did my best to avoid myself in Caroline’s prose. Her bottom was relatively high, and she was the same type of alcoholic as me. Her voice, the voice of early recovery, betrayed a hungry and precarious relationship with men, sex, food, body, intimacy, and of course with alcohol. It was me precisely. Through Caroline’s eyes, I saw my disease for the first time.
At the time, this was bad news. I was not yet ready to qualify. Caroline put a serious damper on my drinking a year and a half before I quit.
In January 2016, I was ready. And when I was ready, she swept me into sobriety with conviction, with passion, with purpose I had been longing to feel.
It was objectively lonely, being newly sober, but it didn’t always feel that way. I didn’t have a lot of plans or people to see, but sometimes Caroline would interrupt the expanse of the weekend with something like this:
“There’s something about sober living and sober thinking, about facing long afternoons without the numbing distraction of anesthesia, that disabuses you of the belief in externals, shows you that strength and hope come not from circumstances or the acquisition of things but from the simple accumulation of active experience, from gritting the teeth and checking the items off the list, one by one, even though it’s painful and you’re afraid. When you drink, you can’t do that. You can’t make the distinction between getting through painful feelings and getting away from them. All you can do is just sit there, numb and sipping, numb and drunk.”
Caroline assured me that sobriety is courageous. For an alcoholic, it is.
She was not a therapist. She was not a parent. She was neither a friend nor a mentor nor a lover. She did not try to change me; she simply told her story. She is dead now, died early, and will never know the difference she has made in the lives of women who are almost ready to call themselves alcoholic.
If I’m right about Caroline, this doesn't matter too much. She didn’t need to know her difference. She was riding on faith, anyway. She simply scattered her story to the wind and, by some miracle, I caught it.
Three years later, I found myself compelled to walk up to a stranger after an AA meeting. This isn’t characteristic of me; I don’t lurk after meetings. I don’t make small talk. I don’t get numbers, I don’t make phone calls, and I often don’t even respond to texts. I beeline for the door.
And yet, after one meeting, my feet brought me to those of another woman, a stranger who I’d seen around the rooms a handful of times. I found myself asking for her number. I found myself arranging a coffee date.
The first time we met, it was enlightening. Thank you, God. I can see why you took command of my feet like that.
And then, it happened again. I found my fingers typing out another text, nearly two months after our first coffee date, suggesting another. She doesn’t have time for you, said my brain. You’re not clear enough on why you want to meet. You’ll probably wish you’d never made these plans. She’ll think you’re using her. She probably feels overspent, pulled in too many directions. Are you really going to put another meeting on her calendar?
I rolled my eyes at my brain (hard to do, anatomically), and we met.
We were talking about recovery, and then we were talking about writing, and so of course the topic came up. I asked her: “Have you heard of Caroline Knapp?”
You know: author of Drinking: A love story. Writer for the Boston Globe. Purveyor of women’s issues. Storyteller. The driving force to my own writing. The woman whose picture is on my wall.
“Oh yes. She was a close friend to my sponsor. I can give you my sponsor’s number if you’d like to talk to her."
It took me a moment to re-arrange my face. It took me a moment to realize I didn’t know this woman well enough to lead with expletives. Three degrees of separation from Caroline Knapp. Those weren't my designs.
Less than a week later, I was eating lunch with the closest friend of the late Caroline Knapp. She was speaking intimately about a woman I’ve spent the last four years simply imagining. Nothing she said surprised me. Everything fit. Until:
“You know, I was in a writing group with Caroline. I have an old, unpublished manuscript of hers, an earlier version of her book Appetites. I can bring it to you if you want to read it.”
Again, with the face. Again, with the expletives. Anna! These women are ladies. I stammered: "Yes! That would be amazing."
I’ve spent the last month reading Caroline’s writing on printer paper. The content of Appetites is brilliant, and has inspired in me many blog posts to come. (Get ready to go really hard on the elusiveness of satiety, folks.)
But that’s not the best part. The best parts are the little pieces of Caroline that are scattered across the manuscript. The typos that would later be caught by the editor, the hastily written notes to self (“delete the rest of this paragraph!”).
When I see these things - the mistakes, the unresolved thoughts - I circle them, as if I myself am preparing Caroline's work for the world. When I see her imperfections, her rawness, her realness - that's when I'm seeing her.