I was 24, and three years sober; it was our first date. We had dinner at a Japanese restaurant, then celebrated the spring warmth with ice cream. We took our cones outside and sat on a bench.
We liked each other. There had been no major screw-ups yet. But now it was the time in our date to tell him that I was an alcoholic, and I was finding it very, very hard.
“What’d you get?” he said.
“Uh.” I looked down. “Banana?”
I was going to destroy this date. I knew it. I could picture it: the noncommittal “Okay,” the slow eye shift, the fumble for the polite exit. We had mutual friends, this very nice guy and I, and to not tell him would risk deception by omission — what if someone let it slip before I could tell him? The evening would end with the limp handshake reserved for non-closers, and I would go home to hang over my Big Book from AA and cram handfuls of Lucky Charms into my open, keening mouth.
He leaned in. “You okay?”
A group of kids played tag around us, their moms yelling at them to slow down, you just ate. The biggest kid, good and frantic on sugar, landed another in a mean headlock and began to throttle him back and forth. “I can’t breathe!” the victim yelled. The moms looked on, vanilla scoops dripping into their wedding rings.
“I’m fine,” I said.
One of my earliest memories is of standing on top of the toilet to reach the children’s cough syrup in the bathroom cabinet. I’d made a magical connection on some random sick day: Drinking this did something incredible. A couple pulls and I could move through a world finally set in its right lights, warm and loose. This was the way I was meant to feel. I’d lie flat on my back, serene: Duuude. I was 5. I had no way of putting words to this feeling, but my heart was roiling with it.
I had an unhappy, clumsy childhood in a small rural town in Kentucky. The slide from plump to chubby to fat — the kind of fat that earned me an induction to Weight Watchers at 11 — would be swift and brutal. There is all manner of beauty pageantry in the South, from the formal to the casual to the unconscious; if you were a little girl who was not cute, could not tumble, clog, or warble Reba McEntire songs, you were fucked but good. And the more awkward I became — not just the pounds, but the thick, greasy glasses, the hair that seemed to explode from curls into one unified Brillo pad — the more the adults around me radiated disapproval.
Becoming a woman was the slow process of realizing, piece by piece, what did not belong to me. My body, the object of so many long looks and so much commentary, was not mine. My voice was not mine either; when I bothered to lift it, it was shushed, corrected. The external, it seemed, did all it could to make me disappear. So I turned inward.
In high school, I finally discovered myself in the three Little Kings beers or the moonshine (it was Kentucky, after all) that I downed in someone’s backyard, in my very first screwdriver. I didn’t indulge in the kind of open-mouthed, grinding partying that other teens held so dear. I did not want to experiment; I wanted to drink, and I would be damned if anyone was going to take that away from me. There was so little that was mine.
I was a good student, star of school plays, in the National Honor Society, with scholarship certificates crowding the living room shelf. I knew the importance of being visibly good in order to protect myself, so I could be left alone to drink, to assume my real self — one that could merely exist inside its skin, without constant self-monitoring, free of this false, sunny shell. I was fiercely protective of my new habit, knowing that secrecy was paramount, that any alarming behavior might cause interference. And unbelievably, it worked; no one knew.
I have a clear memory of sitting alone in my bedroom some night before I left for college, drifting, sucking on one of the wintergreen lifesavers I used to mask my breath. I thought, This is who I am; this is for good, and I felt a sense of aloneness so profound that it terrified me. Still, I could not bear to think of giving drinking up.
College was where my alcoholism bloomed from mere habit into breathtakingly muscled illness, the kind that can only come from a perfect tangle of genetic disposition, depression, and a penchant for escape. I found friends and began to take the act more public: Someone once discovered me drinking Everclear from a coffee mug, and it became the hilarious story people associated with me. I was the girl hooting “Dancing Queen” like a sweaty Dollar Store-issue Liza Minnelli to a room of confused revelers at a bar, then nearly getting myself and my friends arrested when I couldn’t seem to stay on the sidewalk outside. By age 20, I had a drink most mornings before I had my first coherent thought.
The semester before I quit drinking is one big smear; there were incidents. Speaking too loudly at parties, losing my balance, inappropriate comments. There were looks, nudges, raised eyebrows. Comments made just out of my hearing: so sad. It was the public shaming — the thing wayward girls are always warned about — that I’d always feared.
But I’d also reached a personal limit that was harder to define: a deepening awareness of my own isolation. I had a clear view of college’s end, of a life in which I would be alone and at the mercy of my own appetites — louder than family, friends, goals, or faith. There was a mere handful of years between my present self and the rotting of everything in me that was good. The fear of that smothered the self-loathing that argued, “Who cares?” It drowned out, by mere inches, the craving for a drink, my life’s loudest itch. So, in the summer of 2005, before my last year of college, I quit.
I went into physical withdrawal. I was shocked — had I been drinking that much? My body essentially began to scream: vomiting, fever, vertigo. I curled on my bedroom floor, trying not to shit my pants. I marveled at how very much I’d come to hate myself, how little of my interior life I’d truly shared with anyone.
For the first six months of recovery, my brain played a constant loop of this is bullshit this is bullshit this is bullshit. The jangling nerves and the chain-smoking sparked my metabolism; I lost over 50 pounds. My mind and body were now both alien to me. And if I wanted to believe I was worth the trouble of saving, I would first have to pretend to believe that the question of who I was remained blessedly open — that I was not, in fact, the person I had been told I was at all. I consoled myself with these platitudes, even while I was still convinced they were lies.
Dating never came easy for me. The requirements that haunted my girlhood were all there: the call to be pretty, pleasing, a surface to adoringly reflect whoever looked into it. But in dating, that rubric expanded to one great, miserable marketplace in which my wares would be laid out alongside those of other women and found wanting. It didn’t matter if I dated guys who claimed not to believe in this imaginary marketplace, or in the conventional perfections that eluded me. I was convinced: The shrewd shopper was there, under their skin, evaluating me. This was never something I discussed with any man I was with. I felt bound and gagged by it, positive that saying aloud what I assumed we both knew would nonetheless scare them away. I wonder, now, if it would have. I remember thinking, as I began going on dates in high school: I will lose this game.
But date I did, in high school and in college, in long-term and short-term relationships — just enough not to arouse suspicion or attention. Even here, there was the sense of performance: I’m normal, nothing to see here, folks. And for me, drinking made the whole operation possible. I could forget myself long enough to talk to men and engage in the weird, nebulous dance of attraction. I could withstand the rejection, the crossed wires, the hurt: stings glazed over, later, in my own private world.
After I quit drinking, sponsors and other women in the program advised me not to date for one year. Dating, for me, had never been separate from the act of searching for my own value. And that in itself was a slow, horrible realization: Being the woman I felt I was expected to be, and doing what I’d had to do in order to perform that particular dance, had been killing me. To attempt this new life would mean going it alone, on my own merits, without attaching myself to someone else. I would have to be the sole point of this new life in order to truly recover. I would need to envision a life that had its own unassailable value. It was like someone telling me to do a fucking cartwheel: How do you do that?
But at the one-year mark, I found that there really was something new, wavery but promising, making its way into my tissue. I was starting to see my adult life with clarity, and a sense of agency. I owed men nothing, save what I owed anyone: my honesty and myself, presented as clearly as I could manage. I was living in a way I had not thought was possible, a year earlier. But I was also a woman in my twenties, with a libido. Perhaps I could date in a way I hadn’t thought possible, either. I met men, usually through friends; a date happened. Then another.
At some point, after enough time had passed, I would always need to tell the date in question about my recovery. The anxiety ramping up to the mention was always the worst. Who would choose baggage over its lack? Who wouldn’t prefer some sweet, unseen coed with lovely things to say about her summer internship — that unsullied, womanly ideal that haunted me for everything I was not — to an angry recovering drunk who’d knock out an old lady for a goddamned screwdriver?
Worse were the unspoken understandings of what alcoholism meant, what it implied about my morals, my self-restraint, my self-respect. A woman with an addiction is an aberration. She is an affront to the fantasy that women can’t embody the complexities that lead men to find solace in substances; her personal burdens are not supposed to be as heavy. And the abyss of other people’s judgment is deeper for women, who are expected to be custodians for the feelings of those around them. When a woman can’t even keep her own feelings tidy, the response is often disgust or pity, piped through a mask of concern. I remember almost every look, every snort, every snide comment made when I was drunk. Those voices live inside me. And that particular tape, when I play it, stings just as freshly as it did almost 12 years ago.
I was surprised and gratified to sometimes encounter kindness when I made my admission — men who offered acceptance, although it came with curiosity and questions. There were other reactions; a guy once thought it was hilarious that I wasn’t drinking and, for the duration of the evening, insisted upon calling me “Orange Juice.” Said evening ended shortly after I called him “Bud Light.”
There was a part of me that still felt slightly culpable for who I was, as if I’d had a choice and chosen wrongly, thereby revealing my deficiency as a person, a partner, a woman. But at a certain point, I no longer had the stamina to rip myself to pieces. This is who I am. I’m not changing it for anyone else. It’s hard enough to change it for myself.
I need to get this over with, I thought, so I can get on the other side of whatever’s going to happen. “Uh,” I said.
My date smiled, lifted his eyebrows.
The biggest kid, the Headlock King, paused in the middle of clotheslining a toddler to stand in front of us, staring, dazed. We watched as his face went red, then white, then a loose, soupy green. I was positive his eyes crossed for a split second before he leaned over and, with a loud kakk, puked his entire body weight.
It was a physical manifestation of all my grief and anxiety, purged in one noxious, unholy ralph. It broke the air. The Headlock King looked at us, vomit dribbling down his chin, breathing hard. He stared emptily for a moment before bursting into tears.
I look at my date. “Did I mention that I’m an alcoholic?”
He said, “Nope. Don’t think you did.”
And that was that.
I married him. Not then and there, of course, and not solely because of the kindness of his reaction, but it was certainly motivated by his kindness as a whole. That kindness was, and is, rare and expansive, something to which I was not accustomed. Something to which I aspire. I know how lucky I am. When I refer to my better half, I mean it.
He said later that he was glad I told him, that he thought it was brave of me. It was his instant understanding that my alcoholism wasn’t the entirety of my identity that was so stunning to me — mostly because that was something I often struggled to accept myself.
I’d like to say that was the last time I felt any anxiety about saying what I was out loud, but it wasn’t. My shame is persistent, a chronically pulled muscle that’s never quite soothed by any measure of self-acceptance, any argument with myself. It is always with me, and I have no reason to expect that it will go away. But I do try to puncture that shame at every opportunity.
I didn’t talk about my alcoholism publicly until over a decade after I got sober. I wrote a novel in which a central character struggled with addiction, and I was asked in an interview whether or not I had a direct link to the character; I admitted that I shared her illness. I emailed back my response with the hope that it would cut through my abiding humiliation, that it might even serve as a lifeline to someone else who felt the same, and then I promptly went into the bathroom to vomit.
I asked my husband what he thought of me mentioning my alcoholism publicly. “Sure,” he says. “I’m proud of you.” There is, between the way others see us and the way we see ourselves, an abyss.
At some point, I thought I would finally assume the identity I’ve always longed for; I would become the person I was working to become. I thought I would be done telling myself platitudes I didn’t quite believe. But I still repeat them to myself, gingerly testing their validity: that I can clean myself off, that I can be remade.
Kayla Rae Whitaker's work has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Split Lip Magazine, BODY, Boega, Joyland, The Switchback, Five Quarterly, American Microviews and Interviews, and others. She has a BA from the University of Kentucky and and MFA from New York University. After many years of living in Brooklyn, she returned to Kentucky, her home state, in 2016 with her husband and their geriatric tomcat, Breece D'J Pancake.
To learn more about Kayla Rae Whitaker's new novel, The Animators, click here.