Chapter 20: Sober
My friend Chelsey worked at a bar on the Upper-West Side of —
Actually, scratch that. “…a bar on the Upper-West Side” makes it sound dingy.
My friend Chelsey worked at a Michelin Star restaurant on the Upper-West Side of Manhattan. They have a nice bar. One time my mom and I ate an expensive dinner there. We sat next to Patti LuPone.
On September 15, 2013, I stopped in to collect Chelsey before we headed uptown to Harlem where two of our college chums were throwing a party. Fifth-floor walkup, W. 125th Street-ish and Amsterdam — I think.
I sat at the bar and waited for Chelsey’s shift to finish up. Then, the bartender:
“What can I get you?”
I hadn’t eaten anything that day because I was on the “Beyoncé Cleanse.” (In case you forgot: lemon water, a smidge of maple syrup, and cayenne pepper, stirred together and consumed, all day long, if/when you get hungry. Yikes.)
I didn’t consider my entirely empty stomach when, the bartender, again:
“It’s on the house,” as I pulled out my Wells Fargo debit card with $13 on it till Thursday.
Bingo. Within minutes, I’d sloshed down a pre-gamer (two gin martinis), strong, and was on track towards yet another undisputedly messy evening.
Chelsey clocked out, and we rumbled to the party where I was still enough with the program when we walked in. Drunk — but, I’d nowhere near capped my intake, dictated by the sugar-water vodka punch that wound up in my hands just before I began to lose control.
Before I keep going, I’m going to give you one word (technically two) about the kind of addict I am: all-encompassing.
I don’t just sip, I engulf.
I don’t just enjoy, I drown.
I don’t just drink, I inhale. Quickly.
I can’t help myself.
I wish I could explain what happens to my body when I drink. I’ve never understood how dancers can so inextricably describe how their bodies feel. I’m not good at that. Best I can say: it’s like my arms, hands, throat, and mouth become possessed by something otherworldly. I become an alcohol waste bucket and guzzle moonshine faster than the GOP sold itself to Trump.
Before I hit rock bottom and entered recovery, I learned to dissociate as I stumbled into each and every blackout. It was always pretty compelling, objectively speaking, to watch from a bird’s-eye view: an out-of-body experience where I could watch the catastrophe unfold, from above, as the swamp-water consumed me, every day, consecutively, for years.
Subjectively speaking, I’m supposed to be (and usually am) grateful I figured it out as early as I did, but sometimes when I’m out with friends, I still have to excuse myself to a private space, usually a bathroom stall or just outside whatever building we’re at, where I stand shakily, submerged in surefire panic and anxiety — and wallow in the jealousy I feel for everyone around me who’s fully capable of handling one or two drinks. Aside from demonic possession (which, in a way, is how the addict within me exerts itself), I have a deep-seated fear of relapse.
Because if I do, it’ll be a long way down.
At the top of a metal staircase I almost slip and fall, a long way down, but I catch myself, barely. The thought of that last night boils in my mind, September 15, 2013, at the party in Harlem where I fell down the stairs, wound up at the hospital, had my stomach pumped, and accidentally kicked a nurse in the face during a detox meltdown. (It’s called “alcohol poisoning” for a reason.) It wasn’t the first staircase I’d tumbled down in a blackout, but it was certainly the last.
On this brisk January day in 2021, I laugh at the ironic prospect of tumbling to my death, more than seven years into sobriety, at an abandoned brewery in Allentown, PA. For some magical reason, I didn’t die as I hurled down that staircase on September 15, 2013. Today’s the same, but I don’t fall this time. I am in control of my body. I freeze for a moment along with the ice that coats the room and feel the sun glint on my face.
If the last time you saw me was September 15, 2013 — compared to this blustery afternoon on an invigorating adventure with a dear friend (one that doesn’t involve any alcohol or pills )— you wouldn’t even recognize me now. I don’t even recognize that version of me. Standing at the top of the icy metal staircase, I feel safe inside a small piece of heaven where I can still be me, breaking rules to scale the walls you’re not supposed to climb, ducking under fences you’re not supposed to duck under. The act of rebellion is one of the larger roots of my Urbex cause, a version of self-care that makes me feel alive in the world without needing to be fucked up in it too.
As I begin my descent down the ice-soaked stairs, slowly, I inhale. The phantom smell of beer fills my nostrils, so I quickly leave the giant room filled with ancient brewery machines and make my way around the back of the building to a large, empty room filled with graffiti — evidence of past explorers. Someone set up a chair and table in the middle of the room, likely for some sort of photoshoot. I like the way it looks, solitary in the middle of the room. It reminds me of me before I got sober, trapped in my own self-doubt, afraid of everyone. I hear the sound of the winter breeze roam through the backlot of the ruins of the Neuweiler Brewery (which was boarded up in 1968, leaving an architectural piece of Allentown history behind).
I exit off a loading dock where I make my way to a warehouse on the easternmost boundary of the property. I poke my head inside. It looks as though a party happened here, very recently. Lights dangle from the ceiling, glistening in the mid-afternoon light. The brick feels cool under my fingers as I press my hand into the wall to see if I can summon any ghosts today.
But no. It’s just me. Sober me, here with my thoughts and another day in a global pandemic that seems to have no end in sight.
Then: a mechanical noise. I spoke too soon.
A truck grumbles in the distance. At first, it sounds far away indeed, but I glance out a window as the sound creeps closer, and I realize it’s a pickup. Two men, patrolling.
“Shit. We’re caught.” I hear a rustle, spin around to face the other way, and see 25 year-old me, “sipping” on that last gin martini I ever enjoyed.
He smiles and winks, then with immediacy, he whispers: “Run.”
Run. I don’t know where my friend is, but this is the first time since I started exploring these abandoned spaces that I’ve felt a sense of danger. From other humans, anyway. There have been moments, like the time I almost stepped on a rusty nail at an abandoned motel, or the split-second fall through the floorboards on the second story of an abandoned high school — but this danger is different. The way the truck tiptoes around the fence-line makes me think they’ve heard or seen us and are now scouring the brewery to find us. We’re not touching or hurting anything, but there’s always that “liability.”
However, like so many of the ruins I’ve had the pleasure to explore since May 2020, “Maybe try harder to keep people out,” I think. “Maybe fix the gaping holes in the chain link fence that you put up. Maybe do something with these gorgeous structures rather than let them sit here to rot while thousands of Americans don’t have decent places to live.”
I know this is the rebel in me. I know I’ve that I’ve trespassed and that it’s time to go. As I sneak outside, still out of sight of the pickup, I see my friend and signal that there’s danger. She’s already seen them and motions for me to come towards her. I start to walk across the yard when the shouting starts. We both turn to face the pickup truck, now in plain sight. The two men feverishly motion us to come to them. My friend, assuming that they’re merely telling us to leave (which is all that needs to happen since we’re clearly complying), waves her hand and yells back, “Yep, we’re going. We’re going.”
Then: the yelling escalates. The ghost of my former self appears behind me again, only more frantic this time, and again he whispers, louder: “Run.”
The two men get out of the truck and rush towards a gate with a lock on it, keys in hand. In a moment of pure synergy, my friend and I look at each other and bolt towards the opposite side of the brewery where we first entered (through a sizable hole in the fence).
We haul ass past rooms and stairwells and historical machinery that once brewed the same kind of poison that infected my body and spirit before I realized I was killing myself, slowly, right up until the last moment when my roommate (who brought me home from the ER that last night, September 15, 2013)— came into my bedroom the next morning, sat down on the edge of my bed, and solemnly, in a pin-droppable silence, asked a simple question.
“Are you done now?”
I whiz past icicles under holes in the ceiling and scurry up a snowy embankment to the street where my friend and I hook right, running as fast as we can until we reach her car and instinctively dive in. We tear off our outer layers, incognito, and she kicks her car into motion and hightails it out of the area. We rev off down ten blocks or so to a new parking spot and laugh more, decompressing and reflecting on the fact that we likely escaped major trouble. For me, it’s a gratifying release from the imminent danger we escaped — and a hug from my former self who reminded me that, today, I’m okay.
One day at a time.
The winter light starts to dim. My friend puts the car in drive, and we’re off.