WHEN THE BOTTLE IS EMPTY: FINDING YOUR IDENTITY ONCE THE LAST DROP IS GONE
BY: TAMI HARPER WINN
Time isn’t something you can capture in a bottle. I know. I’ve tried. I tried many years ago to keep time from escaping me with every drink I took from that bottle. Today, I find myself chasing waves and sunsets, kissing the last of the rays with my daughter’s hand in mine as I try to keep time from escaping the bottle once again. Today, the bottle is an analogy I get to use, instead of another bottle of Merlot. Soon, my bottle will be empty once again and my time raising my daughter will be over. The empty nest will be part of my story and I will face it alone and completely sober. But who will I be when the bottle is empty?
I’ve learned many things during my time as a full-time mother. Most of my time was spent as a single mother and by far that was my most challenging job-to-date. I never thought I would see this day come where I would stand with only myself on the porch as I wave goodbye to my last child to leave home. To tell you the truth, it has frightened me since the day she was born.
I knew she was my last so I knew that every moment I had, every experience we shared, would be my last time to do it. Trust me. I valued every single minute I had with her, even in my brief but darkest hours. It terrified me to think of what this day would look like, who I would be without my title as full-time mother, and if I would be alone when I had to go through it.
What scared me even more was the sneaky little fear that kept its tentacles on my heart, that whispered lies to me when I thought about this day. Everything I had done in my life from the age of sixteen, when I became a mom, was based on decisions for my children. Every major life choice I made was with them in mind – up to and including getting sober. That’s right. You heard correct. I first made the decision to find recovery because my son asked me to get sober. For my kids, I gave it a shot. It stuck. Now, truth be told, I have often thought that my accountability to my daughter (as she still lived with me), my extreme desire not to hurt anyone again or let anyone down, my ego that said I needed to be someone my children could look up to, all of these things were my anchor to my sobriety. They had fashioned themselves into their own beliefs that became a powerful tool for many years. It has been my safety net.
Now, as she prepares to leave on her mission and then college, she looks at me knowing these things about me and says, “Momma, please don’t make me the reason you stayed sober. I need you to believe you stayed sober for you. Please know that this is about you and always has been.” I see the small hint of fear behind her eyes. It is just mirroring mine.
What can I say to that? Do I even have a truth to respond with? So I pause and leave it hanging out there. I find myself on quiet evenings when she is out, asking myself those questions I’m sure she has asked herself. Will I be okay when she is gone? Did I really need her to keep me accountable? Can I not drink when she is gone? Who did I get sober for and why? Who will I be when I am alone?
Tears will bleed from my eyes at the very thought of answering those questions. I have shaken with fear at trying to conceive my existence without my children in need of me constantly. I have never been alone - ever. This is a brand new world for both of us. It is extremely scary and exciting at the same time. Both of us have so many unanswered questions.
I have invested so much of myself into raising my children, that I have made it my very identity my entire life. My Al-anon sponsor says that it isn’t healthy to have done that, but I did. Now, this last year I have been trying to untie the knots in my safety net and relearn how to swim before she leaves. I have spent countless hours in meetings and doing step work trying to gain the tools necessary for this job. I have been learning how to let go
I am a double-winner and why I drank was because I felt I had no control over others. I know this today. I know that I have identified myself with the Al-anon program and as a true Al-anon as well as an alcoholic. My inability to control outcomes forced me into a bottle to find relief from the insanity, thereby creating the ultimate insanity - my inability to control anything. So, I surrendered.
Now, here we are today at yet another crossroads. I have lived through devastating deaths, the loss of my fiancée, nearly losing each of children, job losses, near homelessness, and intense medical diagnosis’s. Each one of them, I was sure if I was faced with, would be the reason I started drinking again. Somehow I didn’t. Yet, here I stand again faced with another big life event that has me just as terrified as all the others before. The unknown variables are what rocket me into unhealthy thought patterns almost immediately if I let them. So, I grab my pen and paper and begin to go to work at the gut-wrenching process of inventory so that I can find temporary relief to the pain I am putting myself through.
I have spent this last year learning to let go slowly. I have begun to explore the world, literally, around me without anyone else there with me but God. I have learned how to do things without my children, forced myself to try new things that I was interested in, and let my daughter start taking charge of her life more without my help. I let her go just a little bit more each day. I think this is healthy. I do not know yet. I’ve never been here before. I know nothing about being Tami. I don’t know that I ever really did. I’ve just always been Mom.
So, trying to discover who you really are forty-eight years later, thirty-one of those as a full-time mom, and only seven of those completely sober is a truly daunting expedition for someone who doesn’t have a clue who they are outside of everyone else. I know that I was born separate from anyone else in this world, and given an identity that was all my own. But since that day I have belonged to someone else’s identity of me - identities such as daughter, sister, friend, lover, mother, employee, mema, and so on. I have identified myself to those I was with. I never identified myself as Tami when I was with anyone. I was Matt’s mom, Brandon’s mema, Erica’s best friend, John’s employee, Nathan’s lover, Debbie’s sister, Jean’s daughter, Drunkless’s Feature Blogger and the list goes on. Just who in the hell was Tami? Was that even a thing?
I have felt so lost when I think about it, so I choose to try my hardest not to. I just get up each day, try something new each day, and pray. I try to let God direct my day so that I create the least amount of harm as possible. Someone who has no idea who they are can be a danger to others by mere default because they are clueless as to what it is that they exist for at all. I have often believed I existed for others. I realize this is a falsehood or made-up story that only exists in my mind, but I have lived it for so many years now I’m just now beginning to understand it’s a lie.
When the bottle is empty who will I be? I believe we have all asked ourselves that question at least once in our lifetime. For most of us, it may have been when we first believed we may have a problem and need help. For me now, the bottle is a representation of the ending of an identity or large part of my story. When change is about ready to occur or happens without warning, all I am left with is an empty bottle and myself.
I am not sure what my new identity will be when she leaves. I am not sure what my life will look like once my role as her full-time mother is over. I do not know a whole lot about me as Tami but I do know that I have a very big God and that up to this very day, I have survived 100% of everything I have been through. I’m almost certain that I will survive this too. I try to look at this like a new chapter or a new adventure. I sometimes feel like I’m searching for Waldo in the “Where’s Waldo” series as I try to figure out who I am separate from anyone else.
These next couple of months will be filled with so many chances to imprint lasting memories for me and my daughter. It will be spent lavishing the last drops of time left in this bottle I call motherhood. I only hope to be drunk on love by the time it is done. Very soon it will be time to uncork a new bottle in my life. Who knows? Maybe I’ll uncork a few, hell I’m a recovered alcoholic, why not have more than one open? Maybe I’ll sit down with a whole bunch of newly opened bottles and taste test all of them in my attempt to find just the right one for me. Maybe I will be able to say I tried them all and I finally found the one I can call “Tami.” I can only hope for the day that I know who Tami is finally, when the bottle is empty – once and for all.
~ Tami Harper Winn ~
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