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a note on eleven years

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January 16 marks one of the most important milestones in my life. On this day in 2009, I got sober.

One of the most influential writers in my sober life has been Augusten Burroughs. Anyone who’s ever read Running With Scissors probably knows why. But it wasn’t Running With Scissors that has stuck with me all these years, as incredible of a memoir as it is. It’s Burroughs’s Dry that has never left the outskirts of my book memories.

I first read Dry in 2006, three years before I, too, would find myself broken, bleeding, and on my knees, begging for a second (read: 459th) chance. I remember where I was when I read it. Philadelphia, Center City. Corner of 16th and Spruce. 11th floor. My apartment. I was in bed, where I do most of my reading. The winter of 2006 was already a watershed time in my life. I’d moved to a new city, had a dream job working as an educator at an historic home in an historic neighborhood, admitted some important truths about who I was. I felt free, alive, and on the cusp of what I thought would be the best years of my life. I picked up Dry on the recommendation of one of my roommates and I read it in one sitting. I wasn’t the same afterwards.

As I was reading it, my initial thoughts were, “Wow. This guy is fucked up. I can’t be an alcoholic or addict because I’m not even remotely as bad as he was.” Just read that a few more times. “I can’t be an alcoholic or addict because I’m not even remotely as bad as he was.” I literally sat there and said to myself, “Self, you like to drink. Self, you get beyond drunk. Self, you do things while drunk you’d never admit to while sober, let alone even remember. But don’t worry, you’re not an alcoholic, you’re not like he is.” (This was a fun game I used to play. Comparing my behavior to others’ to make sure I wasn’t an alcoholic or addict. I won every time. Except the last time.)

The more I read, the deeper down Burroughs drilled into his destruction, the deeper down I pushed what had been in the back of my head for years: Hi, I’m Katie. And I’m an alcoholic. The closer I got to seeing my reality in his story, the farther I got from being able to admit it. Hi, I’m Katie. I’m not an alcoholic. Because I don’t have bottles and bottles of booze laying all over my apartment. (How could I, I always had roommates who wanted a clean place to live.) Because I hadn’t been fired from a job because I was constantly drunk. (Sure, I would show up to work still drunk from the night before, but I always sobered up really quickly.) Because I never mixed drugs and alcohol. (Well, fine, but only occasionally.) Because I never slept in my own vomit or pee, passed out beyond oblivion. (Just… ok, never vomit!) As I gained pages, I lost truth.

I don’t think I had ever had such a complex relationship to a book before this. Books have always been my happy place, the world through which I could experience, spy on, dream, be all the things and people I wanted. But reading was also about escape. I read to cope, to look through the eyes of someone else for a while, to experience their life, their problems, instead of dealing with my own. Dry took on a role in my life, a touchstone I would come back to over and over as a reminder that I wasn’t as bad as I knew I was. I was able to survive myself because it gave me (false) hope. I can’t be an alcoholic or addict because I’m not even remotely as bad as he was.

The problem was, I actually was an alcoholic and addict. When, three years later, I was tired of the life I was living, tired of the pain, the fights, the illness, the hurt, the destruction, the hypocrisy, the untruths, tired of everything, I finally admitted what I’ve been admitting to myself and others ever since, “Hi, I’m Katie. And I’m an alcoholic.”

Now, Dry has taken a new place in my life. I don’t use it as my touchstone, an apology, an excuse, a denial of my own addictions. Now, it just sits on one of my bookshelves, a thing I look at to remind myself of where I’ve been. And where I never want to go again.

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