“She Seemed Like Such a Nice Girl”

THIS article FIRST APPEARED ON Since Right Now.

excerpted from girl walks out of a bar

Shit. It was 7:00 Monday morning and I needed wine.

In two hours I’d have to be at work, which meant that I was going to have to steady my shaking hands. I inched out of bed and walked naked toward the kitchen. After just a few steps, my stomach lurched with the undeniable rumble of rising vomit, and I dashed to the bathroom with my hand pressed against my mouth. I vomited violently and then sprawled out across the cold tile floor and lay there like a deer that had just been hit by a car. After a few minutes I began to lift my head upright, slowly, gradually, as if sneaking up on something. When I had finally reached eye level with the toilet, I saw blood in the bowl.

Finally steady enough, I went to the kitchen and filled a dirty glass with wine from an open bottle. Looking down the long counter at the spoon rest I’d bought in Italy, my fancy tea kettle, and the slotted spoons in a ceramic pitcher, I could almost convince myself that a normal person lived here, maybe even the successful, thirty-eight-year-old lawyer people saw when they looked at me. But for that perspective I’d have to hold my hands up like a photographer framing a shot so I could crop out all the empty wine bottles, the dirty glasses, and the overflowing ashtrays.

My immaculate coffeemaker looked at me in judgment. This would be just another day that I ignored it in favor of the wine bottle. It was a good time for a cigarette.

Still naked, I shuffled to the living room and on hands and knees slapped around under the couch looking for my lighter. All I came up with was a handful of dust and seventeen cents. But there were always matches to be found somewhere in my dark den. I reached into a hand-painted box that sat on my end table and found a plain, white matchbook amid the rolling papers, razor blades, and rolled up dollar bills. I flopped down on the couch and lit a Marlboro Light.

With the cigarette clamped between two fingers, I rested my elbow on my knee and dropped my head. My hair hung over my face like dirty curtains, but the sunlight streaming into the room still stung my eyes. I got up and opened the window to let in the fresh air of early spring. It was in April 2004 and the sounds of rumbling trucks and honking horns on East 20th Street flooded my apartment. Everybody shut up, I thought.

I took a few more slugs of wine and went back into the bedroom where I examined the small baggie of cocaine in my nightstand drawer. Thank God there was still some left. Dumping the remains on the top of my antique dresser, I crushed it into a fine powder with the back of a spoon. Careful not to lose any as I moved my hand across the white streaks in the marble top, I cut a few thick lines with a razor blade. There wasn’t nearly enough to get me through the workday. Fuck.

Save it for later, I thought. You’re definitely going to need it. But in four quick snorts through a rolled up dollar bill, the coke disappeared, leaving only a burning in my nose and a chemical-tasting drip down the back of my throat that managed to be both disgusting and delicious. My relief was countered by familiar feelings of dread about not having more—the untenable reality of an addict.

Just go—move, move, I thought. I lumbered toward the shower. Catching a glimpse of my bloated face in the bathroom mirror, I let the bath towel drop and rested both of my hands on the bathroom sink. It was hard to hold my head up. I looked like a haggard witch at least twice my age. What had I done to myself? And fuck, how was I going to get through today?

I gulped another big glass of wine as I dug through my closet for a suit.

My work wardrobe was ratty. All of my suits, like most of my clothes, were black because black hid the wine stains and cigarette ash. Black also matched my general outlook and helped me disappear in a crowd. After my obsessive ritual of brushing my teeth and gargling with Listerine at least three times before chomping Orbit gum, I began to feel more like my version of normal—steady enough to get through my workday without people seeing me violently shake or stumble and just barely confident that no one near me would smell the wine that pulsed through my veins.

I slid my laptop into its case. I had spent most of the weekend working on a business proposal that my law firm was submitting to a major power company. The prospective client represented millions of dollars in new business. Nonstop drinking and dozens of lines of coke had fueled my efforts from Friday evening through 3:00 Monday morning. No question that my work was better when I was high than when I was hungover. After drinking I was a three-toed sloth; on cocaine I was a stallion.

With my bag, phone, laptop, and keys together, I looked in the mirror, checking my nose for blood and stray coke and my teeth for smeared lipstick. Then I stepped out into the hallway and locked the door behind me.

But something felt wrong, unusually wrong. Anxiety seized me. I felt sicker than usual. My head was heavier and murkier. The shakes were deeper. I could feel them in my guts and in my bones. I even seemed to hate myself more than usual.

Was this it? Was this the end? Was it possible that my body could take no more and I might just drop dead right there? One of the senior citizens on my floor heading to the diner for breakfast would find me in the hall, dead on my back, my eyes and mouth gaping, one hand gripping my laptop and the other holding the New York Times. When the police insisted it was an overdose, the horrified old lady would whisper to my parents, “But she seemed like such a nice girl.” The thought made me sicker. I’m going to die, I thought. I’ve killed myself.

Standing in front of the elevator, I stared at the “down” button. My heart was thumping like an angry bass drum, and my neck, back, and chest were seeping a strange, cold sweat. A voice in my brain screamed, “GET HELP!”

Get help? Help for what, I thought.

For this anxiety attack (or is it a heart attack)? For the addiction that I’d known about but had dismissed for the past ten years? I wasn’t clear about what I needed, but somehow I knew that “it” was over, that something had to change. Without knowing what to do next, I turned away from the elevator. Back in my apartment, I poured another glass of cabernet. I called Mark, my ex-boyfriend. Two weeks earlier, he had chosen to go back to being just my “downstairs neighbor.” When he had insisted that I get treatment for my alcohol and cocaine addiction I told him to get the fuck out of my apartment.

Before he could say “hello,” I choked out the words, “I need help.” Mark was the only person who had any idea that I drank in the mornings and used coke regularly. For years, I had managed to hide it from my family and friends by lying my ass off, being extremely attentive to details, and staying away from the people who mattered most. Mark’s finding out was a testament to my spiraling sloppiness.

“I’ll be right there,” he said and hung up. 

Two minutes later he was at my door, and when I told him, “I think I need help with addiction,” his brown eyes gaped.

“You really mean it? You’re finally going to do something?” He looked like a bobblehead, bouncing up and down in his blue Puma sneakers, his shoulder-length curls of brown hair flopping back and forth.

“I have to. As in, today or I won’t do it.” He smiled. I looked at him with the focus of a military sniper. “Do not say ‘I told you so,’ or I’ll throw you out of this apartment. I mean it.” He bounced over to the couch and sat obediently.

A strange sense of relief began to warm me.

Maybe I was actually going to do something about the horror my life had become. Did I really want to stop drinking? Stop using drugs? It was unimaginable—seeming simultaneously too good to be true and my worst nightmare. Even if I wanted to quit, I seriously doubted I could go five hours without booze or coke. I had resigned myself to being an alcoholic and cocaine addict who would eventually drown in a puddle of vomit. Or maybe on a foggy night I’d stumble into the path of a speeding cab. In any case, it was clear that mine wasn’t going to be a graceful death. But on that morning, for the first time ever, I wanted to do something to save my life.