Nirmala-Nataraj

After Alcohol

I understand that some part of my reluctance to see my good friends yesterday had more to do with my fear of how others, even those who say they love me, will perceive me than the reality of what I will actually experience. It often goes this way: I end up having a wonderful time, although I usually expect not to. 

Yesterday, I laughed until my sides ached. I ate food so delicious that I burned my tongue in my eagerness to swallow. I didn’t check the time on my phone, or skim headlines, or send feverish texts to my sister about the last questionable thing our mother had done. Eight hours after my arrival, my insides were bubbling better than champagne and I exclaimed with genuine astonishment, “Holy shit, it’s already midnight!” 

It made me think back to my college years, to the periods when I would will myself to stay in my room, almost immovable, while others were outside partying—because I wasn’t convinced I knew how to have fun. A tower of greasy Domino’s pizza boxes became the buffer that absorbed and blocked out the ones who threatened to intrude upon my solitude. I took on the guise of a purely self-contained person who was more interested in cultivating her inner radiance than she was in being part of the outer spectacle.

Admittedly, alcohol became the smooth unguent that changed my relationship to all that. Suddenly, I could be wholly outrageous, entirely lacking in self-consciousness and capable of turning my chronically inward-looking observations into witty meta-analyses of the situation at hand, which seemed to intrigue and entice others around me.

Suddenly, I had a discernible function. With alcohol, I was no longer a loser. I was myself, myself amplified in a way that was new to me. Suddenly I had access to the pent-up boldness and creativity that had always haunted me with fantasies of the person I could be if only I weren't so scared or sad or traumatized or plain.

At the age of 22 or so, I realized I could be that person—that in some ways, she had been within me all along. The ailment of shyness seemed to be gone. I didn't give myself the time or space to test this theory. Throughout the majority of my adult life, I would not go without alcohol for more than a week or two, which would feel like a huge accomplishment, summarily dashed by a celebratory drink. I celebrated my brief stints of sobriety with alcohol, my stolen moments of clarity with a hammering hangover.

Yesterday, I didn't know how anything would pan out. Five hundred days of sobriety was easy enough without the burden of social engagement to make me doubt myself. But then, I recognized that alcohol had not been the only thing that allowed me to forge a path via courage and curiosity instead of fear and inhibition. I had made other choices. Choices that had pulled on the ripcord of all my early stories about myself—“I’m shy, I’m unlovable, I am uncool, I don't have anything interesting to offer, others will see right through me”—and sent me plummeting into free fall. In losing my sense of ground, I came into new realities.

The words in my bones aligned, suddenly, with the ones that would come flying off my tongue. It isn't that I had the right words at the right time—not always, and maybe even not often. It's that some part of me had already become accustomed to recognizing that rightness wasn't the point.

There's a photograph of me at 10 years old: hair tied severely back from my face, coke bottle glasses imperceptibly sliding off my delicate nose, starched blouse buttoned all the way to the top. To this day, I never button a blouse all the way to the top. I remember all too well the choking sensation at my throat, which made my voice sound brittle. It's a visceral memory that I choose not to revisit upon myself. That old photograph is a misguided omen pushed out from the banks of a long and winding river by a belief or an ancestor who no longer needs to be driving my future from a distant shore I left many years ago.

Yesterday's nerves were quickly assuaged by my awareness that there's more to this journey than the sensation of being penetrated by unwanted or judgmental gazes. There's also the way my own gaze penetrates, softly but decisively. The way my eyes create beauty and draw it to the surface in places where it has been bashful or unrecognized. Places where kind eyes open up to me and become portals through which I can glide, at ease, unhurried. 

I don't need to drink myself into a stupor anymore in order to experience myself or be experienced as worthy of space and attention, or to know myself as one fluid comet of energy. Tail streaming in the atmosphere. A spectacular sight to behold.

I don't have to be spectacular. I don't have to be nice. I don't have to be funny. I don't have to be in a good mood. I don't have to be smart. I don't have to be certain. I don't have to be finished, in the way I used to believe confident people always were. Complete life forms unto themselves, crafted painstakingly by a zealous artist who always ensured that her creations would be compelling and unambiguous. Archetypal characters wrought by the finest hand.

I am not a character. I'm not complete. I speak in unfinished sentences. I carry my unshed tears and jagged edges into every bright and noisy room. My conflicts are probably compelling only to a handful of people. I loom like a shadow at the edges. I am rounded corners, as well. Subtle dips into hushed conversations at candle-lit tables. The kind of unexpected reverie that makes you ask aloud, “What was I just saying?”I am all that. I do not seek to impress. Sometimes I do not seek to express. I show up, I shine, I dim. I am inconsistent. I'm a series of 41 dashed lines representing years that approximate a human life…one I am still learning to grow into.

Nirmala-Editor
I’m Nirmala Nataraj, a New York–based writer, editor, book midwife, theater artist, and mythmaker.

As someone who has woven in and out of a number of different word realms—nonprofit communications, advertising, theatre, publishing, and community arts, to name a few—I know that liberation is possible through the stories we choose to tell. As a first-generation South Asian American, I myself exist in the liminal spaces between cultures, art forms, and languages—and it is this multiplicity of narratives that informs my personal and professional approach.

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