From The Belly of the Beast

From The Belly of the Beast

It was dark inside the wolf.

You know, the one that came banging at my door every day. The one disguised as a bottle where I could climb deep down inside, cleverly protected by thick walls of foggy glass, down to where my troubles and truths couldn’t find me, floating in a septic sea of red wine and denial. The Big Bad Wolf that promised me warmth, wrapped in his arms and the soft security of his blankets of fur, just to tangle me up and draw me in.

The one that refused to stop huffing, and puffing, and trying to blow my house down.

The one that gobbled me up and kept me there, stuck in it’s belly for so long, shackled and addicted.

I waited for someone to come pluck me from the darkness, to drop a rope for me to climb out, but no one ever did.

Or, when they did, I was too afraid to leave.

I waited for someone to notice I was missing, but my moment of awakening (read: finally getting tired of my own bullshit) came years and years after everyone else realized I was long gone.

Written off. Excused. Another casualty of changelessness.

Well, you know Shawn.

No one truly believed I was capable of change. Not even me. Not like this, anyways.

Not with wine.

Where some people paired fine wines with entrees – a crisp chardonnay with a buttery lobster tail, perhaps – I had graduated to everyone just pairing me with wine, and basically...everything.

Good day? Shawn’s drinking.
Bad day? Shawn’s drinking.
Half asleep? Shawn’s drinking.
Tuesday, 10am? Shawn’s drinking.

Celebrations, travesties, dramas and dilemmas – every situation somehow paired perfectly with wine, and me.

If I weren’t drunk I’d be hungover, and if I didn’t have a hangover yet, I was working on one as if outdoing every other viciously painful morning along with the misplaced memories of the evening before was my full-time job.

I woke up one year ago this morning, barely able to keep myself from drowning in the caustic acid of the alcoholic pit I was trapped in again (which for the record smelled more of sour, rotten decomposition than the sweet nothings that had originally lured me in). All those candy-coated lies the Big Bad Wolf fed me so I'd step into it’s salivating mouth day after day and night after night were just that: coated and colourful, disguising the bitter truth of it’s offensive flavour and even more unpleasant after-effects.

It smelled like something breaking down, and that something was me.

I had spent so long treading there in the belly of the beast that I was beginning to forget what daylight felt like.

It was easier to keep my eyes closed to the blackness than to try and hold them open, just pretending there was light.

Pretending there was something new to see, and not the same-old-same-old cycle of man takes a drink then the drink takes the man. I had collapsed to that point of tiredness – with myself, more than anything – that even my eyelids had given up.

One more way to keep the darkness in.

One more way to punish myself for all my unforgivables.

One more way to deny myself the truth that I – just as much as anyone else – deserved that sunshine, too.

It was easier to sink into darkness than claw myself out to the light.

– – –

Standing here one year later, the grass has filled in on the grave.

I still catch myself looking over my shoulder knowing the wolf’s progeny are out there, just as cunning, just as thirsty, just as desperate to devour me as ever. Like shadowy, small figures standing at the edge of a funeral, cloaked in the shade of mysterious black umbrellas, they’re still there. Watching. Waiting for me to falter, because the world has not changed.

But I have.

Oh boy, have I changed.

I’m not going to feed you sugar-coated sweet nothings, or sprinkle my story with sunshine and rainbows, cleverly curating my recovery to sound like I now live in a land of bouncy Care Bears and sparkling unicorns. And even if I did, take note: Care Bears and unicorns still shit like the rest of us, and if you aren’t being mindful, you can bet you’re going to step right in it.

I’m also not going to apologize for having taken 8 months off from writing, but I will thank you all for your kind words and patience, your letters and comments, your encouragement and concern. I’ve grown increasingly unapologetic in my sobriety (see: I Don’t Say Sorry Anymore) – but don’t confuse this with heartless disregard for others. That’s a skin I thankfully shed as I outgrew the small, unworthy shell I kept myself in for so long, saddled to addiction and four bottles of wine a day. But I do promise to write more. I have 8 months worth of words hoarded up in a mountain of anecdotes that are begging to get out, to spill themselves upon the page, and to take root somewhere, hopefully, in someone else’s sobriety.

I will share them all here slowly, eventually, because that is how things happened.

Please also don’t confuse my recovery with visions of me bouncing out of a cake, suddenly sober and celebrating life, streamers, confetti and all.

It was more of a slow, creaking, sloppy rebirth, slick with globs of icing and chunks of cake stuck in my hair.

It wasn’t pretty, but damn it tasted sweet as I chewed my way out.

I won’t fill your screen with 101 Ways My Life Has Improved Since I Gave Up Alcohol because the internet is lousy with those already. But what I will tell you, is that it happens.

That moment where it just clicks.

It happens.

That glorious moment, followed by another and another – when you’re finally willing to stay through the tough stuff because for once in your life, you aren’t afraid to admit that you’re worth it.

You’re worth the reward. The pride. The sweet, unspeakable, beyond-words-sort-of-inner-peace that comes with having survived, having escaped, having persevered, having toughed it out when it would have been easier (oh, so much easier) to have simply given up.

You’re worth allowing yourself to enjoy quiet, painless mornings.

You’re worth a lighter load to carry.

You’re worth knowing that you are allowed to feel good.

You’re worth the indescribable liberty that comes with no longer being the puppet dangling from strings tied to a bottle.

It happens when you at long last realize that you are thirsty for things you can’t drink.

And it’s in that moment of unapologetically claiming responsibility for your own life that your flight from the belly of the beast can begin. Until then, you’re only surfing on maybe’s and exhaustible willpower, making one more bumpy trip around the sun, arriving back where you started every time.

Hungover. Tired.

Sticky with shame.

Honey, you have to love yourself sober.

– – –

So here I am, one year later, one year sober, one year older and light years wiser, standing over the grave of the Big Bad Wolf I narrowly escaped from. I’m not a fool – I know that he’s only sleeping, though buried deeply underground. Some days I can still hear his growling, his huffing and puffing blowing through my halls like familiar ghosts of a hunger long dead but unforgettable.

Some things never truly die, but the way we remember them changes.

I’m strangely grateful for the echoes of that hunger, because hunger and thirst remind us that we are still alive.

What I hear when those whispers whip past my ears and over my scars sounds different now, twelve months sober, twelve months stronger. And it’s what – and how – I hear now when the wolf comes banging at my door that I hope to share with you here.

Until next time.

xo SJ.

“I know now I was thirsty for things you can’t drink” – SJ VanDee

“I know now I was thirsty for things you can’t drink” – SJ VanDee


Sober. Recovery Blogger. Writer. Photographer. Storyteller.