Harper does not like loud noises. Like much else on report cards - or so I'm told - this was an understatement. In reality, fire drills incited in Harper a pounding heart, sweaty palms, and an uncontrollable instinct to bolt from the room. These were probably panic attacks.
Harper’s anxiety intensified in junior high. It was generalized anxiety - more constant than panic, but easier to hide. And hide, she did. Junior high is arguably the age when all kids learn to hide, when they infer the damning difference between who they are, and who the world expects them to be. Harper's anxiety was compounded by depression, ADHD, and early symptoms of bipolar 2 disorder. In this sea of feeling, she ached to feel nothing.
1. “I quickly discovered the soothing effects of a drink” (Wilson, 1976, p. 310).
Harper remembers her first drunk with fondness. She was thirteen and drinking Mike’s Hard Lemonade. At 14, she first got high. Like many future alcoholics - and quite unlike normal drinkers, I've learned - Harper used these substances to quiet the mind. “I was using those things to numb the feelings of anxiety or depression - even good feelings. Just feelings in general...it was really just the numbing that I liked.”
“I was using those things to numb the feelings of anxiety or depression - even good feelings. Just feelings in general...it was really just the numbing that I liked.”
Harper was intent on hiding her use from family, her mother in particular. "[My mother] was just really worried of what people would think of her. I would guess that was probably rooted in how she grew up… that’s probably a little bit of generational trauma there.”
While she was sternly averse to Harper's drinking, Harper’s mother was a “heavy drinker” herself. "Alcoholism runs in our family," Harper says. Her mother’s drinking made it quite easy for Harper to sneak alcohol as early as junior high. “She was drinking to the point that I could take alcohol from her bottle, get myself intoxicated, and she wouldn’t notice.”
Harper doesn't belabor her mother's drinking, and instead reflects on her own. “That was my first sign that I was using alcohol differently. None of my peers were going home and drinking by themselves on a nightly basis, but I was.”
2. “I began to be bothered by feelings that I didn’t fit in” (p. 310)
Harper was born in a male body, and identifies now as a transgender woman. Her transition didn't begin until 23, however. And when Harper's mother enrolled her in Boy Scouts, intent on making her children “contributing members of the community,” it was unsurprisingly a bad fit.
"Did you like Boy Scouts?" I asked.
"Absolutely not," she says flatly - then laughs. "I liked camping. I did not like the militaristic aspect of it... I didn’t have words to describe how I was feeling, but I knew that I was different and I knew that I did not identify as male. So after a while it became very uncomfortable for me to be involved in that sort of hyper-masculine program.”
"I didn’t have words to describe how I was feeling, but I knew that I was different and I knew that I did not identify as male."
“What does gender dysphoria feel like?” I ask.
“It’s this constant nagging and constant worry about how I look. It eats away at your self-esteem and makes you feel like you’re not worthy. It makes you angry.”
As a sophomore, Harper quit Boy Scouts and instead became a drama kid. "That was very LGBT friendly," she smiles. "I was doing my makeup and hanging out with all the other queer kids, so it was great." I can see in her eyes that it was, indeed, great.
“Did you feel like you fit?”
“As much as I could…I never did feel like I fit until I started my transition... but I felt like I was accepted for who I was at that point."
At fifteen, Harper began going online for information on being transgender. She remembers “looking into the interventions, medically and psychologically, that trans people go through, and really wanting to be trans. It was something I did not feel comfortable talking to other people about. Something I did my best to hide from the people closest to me.”
3. “Surely this was the answer - self knowledge” (p. 7)
“I knew I was going to drink [in college],” says Harper, “but I didn’t know I’d drink to that level.” She quickly began drinking with friends six nights a week, racked up a couple of alcohol citations, and began sipping vodka and orange juice on her way to class. Next up were psychedelics, pain pills, cocaine, and benzos. “I started using whatever I could get my hands on indiscriminately.”
As someone with no experience in anything other than alcohol and weed, I am pulled by curiosity to ask Harper this: Why the variety? Why choose one over the other? Luckily, I catch the irrelevance of my question before it slips out. Harper and I have the same disease, I remember. Feeling different, and often feeling nothing, is the universally desired end state. This cuts across different addicts and different substances.
Although Harper already had access to “harder” drugs than alcohol, turning 21 prompted a sharp escalation in her disease. “I was in bars six nights a week,” she says. She’d spend half her paycheck on booze, and ultimately lost her job (ironically, a winery job) to drinking. Life’s mantra became depressingly simple: “How drunk can I get while still doing what I need to do?”
In the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, Harper decided that alcohol was not her real problem. "I decided it was my transition not happening yet," says Harper. "So that prompted me to start my hormone therapy.” And yet, she soon discovered what I would wager she already knew deep down. "[Hormone therapy] still didn’t relieve me of my alcoholism.”
"[Hormone therapy] still didn’t relieve me of my alcoholism.”
Neither did a diagnosis of bipolar 2 disorder in June 2020. While getting this diagnosis was a much-needed pathway to bipolar medication, consistent therapy, and new coping skills, Harper was still an alcoholic. I’m reminded of a quote from the Big Book: "The actual or potential alcoholic, with hardly an exception, will be absolutely unable to stop drinking on the basis of self-knowledge” (p. 39).
4. "Over any considerable period, we get worse, never better” (p. 30)
A “bottom” is often thought of as the moment when the disease gets worse than ever. But I've heard from many alcoholics that the "bottom" can be aptly redefined as this: "Whenever you stop digging.” For her part, Harper had several bouts of serious and scary drug and alcohol use in 2020. However, her bottom was not defined not by a crash, but by a conversation.
She had gone on a date with a man who was six years sober from heroin. “He said that in recovery he was living, and not just existing…that stuck with me,” says Harper, "because I felt like I was just existing...Even if I was just smoking weed, I was not feeling things, I was not interacting with my life in a way that I wanted to….” In speaking with him, Harper saw that "sobriety wasn’t just about not drinking. Sobriety is about emotional sobriety and learning how to deal with your shit, how to be a person. I realized that was not where I was at and I wanted to be there.”
"Sobriety is about emotional sobriety and learning how to deal with your shit, how to be a person."
On Thanksgiving, Harper had wine when she said she wouldn’t. It wasn’t dramatic; it wasn’t even interesting. And yet, it was enough. A week later, she was sufficiently sick of herself to make a change. Harper called her cousin, a longtime source of support and a fellow in recovery. “Take me to a meeting.”
5. "The most satisfactory years of your existence lie ahead” (p. 152)
“I don’t know if I’ll have anything in common with these people. I don’t know if I’m going to get anything out of this, but I’m going to give it a shot.”
Willingness was all she needed. On January 4th, 2021, Harper celebrated 30 days clean and sober. Thanks to her own desperation, tenacity, and the ease of attending meetings over Zoom, Harper hasn’t gone a single day without a meeting. “I was amazed at the variety of people in the rooms. Last night, I was on a meeting with a lovely old British lady, a gangbanger from southern California, a queer couple living in Palm Desert. People who are working shipyards. And every single person, I hear my story. It doesn’t matter who they are…. Because we all have the same disease. And there’s a solution that we’re all pursuing.”
As an interviewer, I wrestled with the next question. Part of me thought, I wonder if recovery feels different when you're trans. Another part of me reminded myself: It's the same disease. I took a risk, and then quickly walked it back. “What would you tell other trans women in recovery?” I asked. “Or anyone, for that matter?”
Harper responds with grace. Hormone therapy, thus far, has “been so fundamentally positive for me,” she says. In the pink cloud of sobriety, "I'm also in my own little estrogen pink cloud.” “There’s still a certain amount of dysphoria, but it has improved so much, and it’s not as overwhelming. My whole life does not revolve around it.”
"The person that you are meant to be – you deserve to give it your all, and you can’t give it your all if you’re drinking and drugging."
“You will enjoy your new freedom even more if you are sober," Harper continues. "The person that you are meant to be – you deserve to give it your all, and you can’t give it your all if you’re drinking and drugging." And then, she seems to read my mind: "It’s the same thing for everybody in recovery.”
Wilson, B. Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism (1976). New York, NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services.