She looks back at me with desperation and defiance shining in her eyes.
She doesn't look like herself, not at all like the woman she pictures in her head, the woman she was for so many years. Her pretty ivory skin is blotchy and bloated, and she can see the beginnings of tiny, pink burst capillaries on her cheeks. She remembers that these are called gin blossoms, and her stomach churns with shame.
There is a slight tremor in her hands; these days it appears if she goes mere hours without a drink. She is vaguely scared at this idea, but not nearly as scared as she is of stopping. She cannot imagine life without alcohol.
I can't give it up, she thinks. It is the only thing holding me together.
Slowly, she ticks through the list she carries in her head - a careworn and dog-eared list of all the reasons she can't possibly be an alcoholic. It's a familiar mantra by now, and it is sounding thin even to her own ears.
The other list - the one she tries not to think about - is getting longer. She pictures the nearly constant disgusted anger in her husband's eyes. She remembers her five year-old daughter's desperate pleas - but Momma, you're ALWAYS sleeping - when requests to read a story or play a game are met with a muffled grunts from beneath the sheets.
She looks back at me and begs me to tell her that she will figure it out, that she will get a handle on her drinking, that she isn't that bad.
Slowly, the defiance drains from her face, and she is left with only desperation. The hard truth lands on her like a stone: you're going to lose everything. You're an alcoholic and you need help.
That woman was me, 1,459 days ago, the day I had my last drink. My husband had just told me I would be heading back to rehab - again - and that he didn't care what happened to me after that. I was sinking, he told me, and he was done. He said he wouldn't let me drag the whole family down with me.
So the afternoon of August 16, 2007 I found myself staring at my own reflection in the mirror, desperate to hang onto the one thing that was ripping my life apart. The chasm between the way I presented myself to the world and the way I felt on the inside had finally opened up and swallowed me whole. It happened quickly. I began the summer with swaggering promises to get help, go to meetings, to stop drinking. All those promises did was drive my drinking deeper underground. I drank on the way to meetings. I drank on the way home. I popped breath mints and drank coffee to disguise the odor on my breath. I spun flimsy webs full of lies, but the only person I was fooling was myself.
In two months I was hospitalized twice and attended two rehabs - one inpatient and one outpatient. I listened to the advice I got, to the stories I heard in meetings and from fellow patients. I wrote copiously in my journal, determined to get a handle on my drinking. I did everything but the one thing I had to do to have a fighting chance at getting sober.
I didn't surrender.
I still believed that there must be something I could do to drink like a normal person. I thought I needed to be stronger, to fight harder, to resist the temptation to keep drinking after one or two. I really believed if I tried hard enough, I would be okay.
In the course of two months my world fell apart, and I stubbornly clung to my right to drink, even as I hurt the people I loved the most. I was so scared. All the time. Scared to keep drinking, and scared to stop.
On August 16, 2007 I looked at my reflection in the mirror and I saw a bloated, desperate shell of my former self. Unshowered, trembling and alone in the world, I finally hit bottom.
I gave up. I went back to rehab - thirty days this time - and I got out of my own way.
Take it, I prayed to whatever-might-be-out-there, take what happens to me out of my stubborn hands.
Today I gazed at my reflection in the mirror and thought about the journey so far.
The face looking back at me is thinner, the crinkly laugh lines around my eyes are more prominent. There is a steely determination in my eyes, as well as an impish glint that wasn't there before.
The woman I see is strong, self-confident, determined. I like her a lot. I've only known her for three years, now - the first year of sobriety was full of anxiety and fear. But slowly, she emerged from the darkness, wove her way into my day-to-day life. Each day without a drink she grew stronger.
The woman in the mirror is also vulnerable. Her emotions ripple right beneath the surface, now that they aren't anesthetized by alcohol and denial. She feels things more strongly: she hurts more deeply, but she loves harder than ever before.
I meet my own gaze and whisper: I love you.
I spent years erasing myself from the picture, lost in shame and fear. Every day without a drink I draw those lines back in - with confident strokes and bold colors.
I like what I see. Finally.