Back in April, I celebrated seven years of sobriety.
Still too chilly to sit in the park, I insisted on doing so anyway. I drank a bottle of spicy ginger beer and observed the empty playground before me. I felt restless. I felt like I wanted to do something special, but didn’t know what.
The first few years of my sobriety, I didn’t like being around alcohol, or being around people who were drinking. I could cope with going to house shows where everyone had a beer in their hand, but I felt a bit misplaced, misshaped. I went to twelve-step meetings, but I didn’t make any friends who I talked to outside of the rooms. Whenever I mentioned my recent sobriety to someone, and they congratulated me, or told me they were sober, too, I felt pleasantly surprised. I also felt very young to be getting sober. I was twenty-five. Maybe it was part of my quarter-life crisis, making such an intense change.
I was on an afternoon pass from a two-month inpatient program for mood disorders the last time I drank. I had a bottle of wine in my fridge, something I’d purchased as a thank-you gift for a pal for driving me to and from roller derby practice. It felt like a grown-up gift, like I was playing a game of being A Real Adult. Instead of giving it to her, I drank alone in my living room with my now-deceased black cat, Amélie. Maybe I wasn’t ready to grow up yet. I was developing chronic fatigue and pain at the time, but was unaware how debilitating these conditions would eventually become.
In the Spolia Tarot, a lone figure, head turned down toward their lap, sits in the back of a small canoe, all water and sky on the horizon. While melancholy, we know that they’re in control. The back of a canoe is where one steers from. Although there are waves, the boat remains steady. The figure is leaving and arriving at once. There’s a sense of despair. All those shades of grey. There’s a sense of resignation, too. Something like a deep sigh, an exhaustion, a weariness. Swords loom over them, but cause injury to neither the person nor their boat.
When I reached seven years sober, I was having a series of recurring dreams about bodies of water.
I dreamed about walking on the shores of unfamiliar towns. In one dream, I encountered Anais Nin. She was glowing a shade of purple I’ve never seen in real life, twirling around in a crocheted shawl, beaming. She looked like she held the secret to happiness, and wanted to share it with whoever had the courage to approach her.
I don’t remember her words in the dream, just the sense that she was giving me something life-altering / life-affirming, some form of advice on being in the world. I was listening intently, aware this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Somehow, the way she danced – alone, beaming – seemed to convey the message.
The Everyday Witch rendition of the Six of Swords also reminds us that we are in control. Three witches straddle a broomstick, bags packed, the night lit up by the glowing Full Moon. Two figures are shrouded, and one looks back at us, or just beyond us, the observer. What’s on her mind’ She doesn’t look afraid. She might be leaving while most are asleep, but she looks self-assured, calm, prepared. And she’s got support.
Whenever we quit something – a substance, a bad habit, whatever – a lot of questions will come up. Why? What brought us to the point where we finally admitted we need to stop? What will we replace these rituals with? Who will we talk to about it? Who will we leave behind? What’s next? What feelings influence our decision? Sadness, exhaustion, shame? Hope?
In the Next World Tarot, the Six of Swords is labeled PASSAGE. Cristy Road writes, ‘She is independent travel and femme visibility’ She represents that moment where you reclaim your personal power and walk away.’ Again, the figure in the card doesn’t look scared. She looks confident. Even if she doesn’t know where she’ll end up, she knows she’s made the right decision. She’s not turning back.
The card I’d drawn on my sober anniversary was Strength. I imagined the strength that is attained long-term, in small increments. Sometimes when we aren’t even paying attention, aren’t trying. Sometimes when we feel our very weakest.
I was living alone when I quit drinking.
I rented a one-bedroom apartment with a window overlooking the traintracks, separated from the front yard by nothing but a narrow road. In the morning, I’d sit on the concrete porch, drinking coffee from a bright yellow yard sale mug, writing letters, watching the tigerlilies bloom along the tracks. It was the only apartment I’ve lived in thus far that was big enough to hold a couch, to hold more than one writing desk, to have a bedroom door. It felt luxurious to have some basic needs met.
Getting sober felt like waking up. Maybe it’s a function of lost memory, but when I remember that time in my life, I think of mornings almost exclusively. I think of waking up early despite having nowhere to go, writing in my diary, writing long lists of everything I wanted to accomplish, and working on my first novel. I had a desktop computer at the time and, like now, no wifi at home. I could do what I wanted with little distraction. I remember the sensation of soft breezes through the open windows, the plain beauty of my pink bathtub, the extravagance of a kitchen that had more than a sliver of a countertop.
The Six of Swords shows an escape from stagnation.
Although people (myself included) can act with violence or malice, with anger and belligerence, when intoxicated, even though it might seem chaotic, it’s also predictable. In my very early childhood, when my parents were still living together but sleeping in separate bedrooms, my dad was an angry, violent drunk. My first memories of him are of emotional and physical violence, of smashed dishes and broken furniture. That, or total absence. It’s what I was used to – I didn’t know him any other way. Though I can’t recall now, I understand that my body must’ve had a physiological response, a way of telling me what to do or where to hide. How to protect myself. In those moments, I became the Six of Swords.
The Collective Tarot shows an Icarus-like figure in the moment before leaping from the edge of a rooftop, testing the wings they’ve built for themself. The skies are dark and stormy, but there’s no use in waiting for better weather. My mom left my dad before I’d entered grade school. She chose to exit the house, take me and my twin with her, and rent a new home in a new town. That was her becoming the Six of Swords.
This card often portends a literal journey, solitary travel.
When I connect this card to my sobriety, I think about moving into a new space to start anew, being released from the psych ward as the lilacs were beginning to bloom, the introspection that comes when reading a good book and gazing out the window on a Greyhound journey. I think about going to new places, replacing bars with cafés, nighttime shows with crafternoons, and drunken rambling with focused writing. The Six of Swords is growing up, maturing, moving on.
Now that so much time has passed, I’ve come to occasionally enjoy being around friends and lovers when they’re drinking. There’s something sweet and vulnerable about the space they enter into as they become slightly inebriated. I become fascinated as I observe them, wondering what paths their minds will wander. At the same time, I wonder how I came to develop this habit. Though I perceived it as experiencing alcohol vicariously through them, it occurred to me that maybe it’s a form of self-protection, too – a way of finding out what kind of drunk I’m interacting with, whether or not they’ll become a threat. Whether or not I’ll have to leave, have to protect myself.
How do you know when you’re ready to leave? What if you have to leave before you’re ready? What will you bring with you? Where do you want to go? What does it mean to become unmoored, and to become okay with being unmoored?
Cards in this post are from the Spolia Tarot, the Radiant Waite Tarot, the Everyday Witch Tarot, the Collective Tarot and the NEXT WORLD TAROT.