Staying Sober in Trump's America
In the wake of a difficult election, I've chosen consciousness over anesthetization.
A Donald Trump piñata filled with tiny bottles of noxious, off-brand tequila lay, busted at the guts, on the floor of my friend Barbara's kitchen. Spilling over with demon alcohol, a temporary relief from the horrors surrounding us as election night unfolded, I stared into its bountiful wound. "Christ," I marveled, "a piñata filled with liquor must have cost an arm and a leg."
"It was on sale because somebody had punched it in the face at the store," someone replied.
I looked at the bottles of tequila. I looked at the bathroom door. The distance between the two seemed negligible.
My immediate impulse was to pillage the Trump effigy and retreat to the toilet, anesthetizing myself from the pain by emotionlessly chugging as many bottles as I could fit in my pockets. No one would witness my slip. Realistically no one would notice when I emerged, staggering, from the bathroom door. It's hard to concentrate on anything else when your eyes, as theirs were, are completely affixed to the life-changing horrors unfolding on a television.
The impulse, however, was quickly quelled. It felt far more powerful to stay conscious through the terror. I chose consciousness over anesthetization.
I awake each morning in my bed. No one is grabbing my pussy. No boot rests on my neck. No one is actively taking away my right to choose, to do, anything.
And yet a feeling of abject terror persists, an endless non-alcohol induced hangover that, even now, has refused to dissipate, a sick knot in my stomach and a weakness in my legs and a tremor in my hand and an inability to concentrate on anything but the nebulous, uncertain future.
The present remains reliable. Weeks have gone by; day-to-day existence, if I ignore the unignorable news, has not changed. The world feels the same, because it is the same. The trains still run on time. The mail is still being delivered. The sun has not yet gone supernova. Yet I still feel an abject sense of powerlessness, a feeling that, in the past, led me to seek some semblance of control via the excessive ingestion of inebriating liquid. I asked my now-sober friend Jake how he got through 9/11? Simple, he told me: He was "drunk the whole time."
I know people who have been dead drunk for days, a reaction I find logical. To stay loaded is to remain in stasis, pausing the video game that is life while figuring out your next move. You needn't be sober to post an outraged screed on Facebook. It, in fact, helps to not be. Sure, Ernest Hemingway once said "write drunk, edit sober," but he existed in a world devoid of topical hot takes.
It's sensible to delay the inevitable; maybe if we sign enough change.org petitions and share enough articles and give Jill Stein enough money, life can make sense again. The final stage of grief, after all, is acceptance, and no one I know wants to reach that point. "Normalization" of Trump and what he stands for is, to the cucks I associate with at least, considered tantamount to death. I cannot pretend as if the rise of white nationalism that has taken root in the past weeks is normal. Nor do I accept it. But I stand back and witness it unencumbered, refusing to let it wash over me like a tide, utilizing the full capacity of my mind's faculties to try and comprehend as I click from article to article, each more unbelievable than the last. Do I feel more of a semblance of agency over things beyond my control than someone who is fucked up? Not necessarily. But, at the very least, I still feel. Feeling is one of the only comforts I still possess.
If my friends are anything to go by, obsessing over the news has become its own form of addiction. "Staying sober was surprisingly easy the first few weeks," my sober friend Lauren told me, "but as somebody pointed out, it was partially because I had replaced an addiction to alcohol with an addiction to all the election news. It felt a lot like my first few weeks of sobriety: I was such an emotional wreck and felt like I was living a nightmare I couldn't wake up from, and because I had none of my usual vices to fall back on, I just had to soak in every single minute of it." That stark, unavoidable truth? You're soaking in it. We all are.
I last wrote about my sobriety in February; life seemed tolerable then, as we weren't yet living in a dystopia. A handful of months without alcohol under my belt, I reveled in my self-righteousness. The key to not drinking was—wait for it—not to drink. Simple, right? Why hadn't I realized that all along?
And yet, I remained a hypocrite. After months in a recovery program, the thought occurred to me around June that I, a chip-carrying lush, could sensibly drink again. The cockiness of one's first true dalliance with sobriety—when you think just because you no longer want to die, you'll never die—can lull you into a false sense of security.
That experiment landed me, rightfully, in the hospital. All the while, I thought I was doing an exceedingly good job of hiding my relapse. I wouldn't drink in front of other people; I'd take a few secret slugs before my then-boyfriend would come over and, as he sat on my couch, take the opportunity to pontificate on the joys of evolving beyond dependency. It turned out, funnily enough, he could tell something was rotten in Silver Lake the entire time. When I asked what tipped him off, his answer was simple. "No one uses that much mouthwash," he told me. My use of mouthwash to cover my sins was as idiotically impotent as the idea I could drink like other, reasonable, people. I was not yet fully cognizant of the extent of my illness; a $1000 IV drip, however, will dissuade anyone of that fanciful notion. But you don't know until you know, y'know? I now know. I can never un-know.
Don't get me wrong, I'm still capable of engaging in self-destructive behavior. I can't stop chain-smoking. Since the election, I fill Philip Morris's coffers as if it's my job. But no one ever called their mother a cunt over Christmas dinner because they were smoking a cigarette. The worst I can get is cancer, but that would be welcomed at this juncture.
With Trump in power, it feels inevitable that the world is going to go to shit. Is it hard to not drink yourself to death in light of this? I am asked this question all the time.
"I'd be lying if I said I haven't thought about it a lot recently," Lauren told me. "With more and more bad news, my anxiety and depression have gotten a lot worse, and the idea of self-medicating has become pretty appealing. It wasn't easy to get sober when I did, but it helped that I felt like there was hope for the world, and I was the only one spiraling. Now it feels like the world is spiraling, and there isn't much hope, so the motivation to stay sober often feels pointless. The struggle isn't just that I want to escape reality—I've always had that struggle—but now I have a hard time seeing why I wouldn't at least let myself try."
It's hard to stay sober, sure, but it's equally hard to get up in the morning. And yet, in spite of it all, I do so. And so do you. You reading this right now is a testament to your ability thereof. If you, if I, can get up, we can do anything. We may be scared, but at least we're conscious through the terror. We have agency—which, unlike the right to burn an American flag, our existing libel laws, access to healthcare, etc.—can never be taken away from us.
On election night, as the terror enveloped us, I leaned over to Lauren, a ride-or-die Hillary supporter. Wide eyed and terrified, we watched as our non-addict friends self-medicated with booze and weed.
"We can't drink. Because that's what they," I whispered, gesturing toward the television, "want us to do." And, corollary, fuck them. I am cogent. I am ready. The pause button is no longer engaged. I, clear of head, remain sober solely out of spite; refusing to anesthetize yourself from the horror that surrounds you, to tackle it head on, is its own form of protest. I used to drink out of spite—for myself, for others, for the world at-large. I've now just concentrated that emotion toward an actual enemy. Spite remains the best and most powerful motivator.
"I want to be as sharp as I can," my sober friend Josh told me last week, "so that whenever I find a situation where I can help, I can jump into action. I've been to protests, met tons of new people, and made calls to my reps; it's the only thing that keeps me going now. This weird cocktail of hope and fury is the only thing that keeps me from drinking myself into oblivion."
Follow Megan Koester on Twitter.