Anika slouched down further into the chair, focusing her eyes on the bookcase on the far end of the room near the door. The bookcase was so stereotypical - with the DSM-III, a few other medical textbooks, bookends that spelled the owners’ initials, a snow globe and a paperweight- that she almost laughed out loud. Unsurprisingly, the person who occupied this space day in and day out had no imagination. That person sat in front of her now, her body rolls taut against her black and white printed v-neck dress, her eyes looking expectantly at Anika from behind her horn-rimmed eyeglasses. Even from where she sat, Anika could see the smudges on her eye glasses and felt the sudden urge to pull them off her and wipe them down.
“Anika…? Let’s give it a shot?” the smudged-glasses lady said, almost pleading.
The tone in her voice emboldened Anika.
“I don’t know what you want me to say. If you are looking for some traumatic childhood incident that led me to be an alcoholic, then there is nothing I can give you.” Anika ran her fingers through the tendrils that escaped from her right ear and tucked them back to distract herself from the agitation building in her stomach.
“So you do think you have an issue with alcohol?”
“Isn’t that what these sessions are designed to make me think? Do I really think I have an issue with alcohol? No. I don’t. Which is why I can’t give you some sob story to explain it all.”
Anika shifted in her seat, smoothing out her dress under her thighs where moisture was causing the fabric to stick. The office was tragically warm despite her asking for the temperature to be lowered every time she came in here. Were they trying to sweat out a confession? Nice try, Anika thought, suddenly feeling even more resolute to give as little away as she could before she left for what was hopefully the last time.
“Anika, so if you don’t have an issue, what led you to be sitting in front of me today?”
“Well, you should know that,”Anika quipped, sounding even to herself like a petulant child. “...OK look, I have learned my lesson, she conceded, “I have learned that DUIs are really expensive. So no, I don’t plan to drink and drive ever again. Isn’t that the point of these sessions? To convince me of that? So can we wrap this up?” Anika paused and added for emphasis,“ I really don’t plan to drink and drive again.”
Her court-ordered counselor stared intently at her, presumably to show she was listening, but it only made Anika feel like she wasn’t being heard. She was five sessions into her mandatory sessions and today was the day her counselor could give her the stamp of approval so she didn’t need to come back for the remaining sessions. Anika couldn’t imagine the counselor would want to sit through five more sessions with her acting this way. And Anika couldn’t stomach being counseled as if she was a clueless teenager. She was twenty-seven for god’s sake. She worked as a Communications Manager. She had her life together...mostly together. Yes, she was stupid to get caught drinking and driving. She had done it many times during and since college but this was the first time she had fucked up and gotten caught. And yes, she did regret it. Spending a few hours in prison, doling out good money to get a top lawyer in Tampa to get the DUI down to reckless driving on her record so it didn’t totally screw over her future employment, and doing roadside trash pickup to get through her community service requirements had done the trick. DUIs were extortionate and inconvenient and she would avoid them at all costs. So why was she still here?
“Well that’s good to hear, Anika, that you don’t plan to drink and drive. But the issue is that what you have made is a rational decision, one that is hard to remind yourself when you are not of rational mind. Which you usually aren’t when you drink. Do you see what I am saying…” Anika jumped right into the trailing end of the sentence, unable to contain herself.”
“Are you telling me to give up alcohol!?!? You can’t be serious. I work in corporate America. Not sure if you know what that’s like as a woman of color. You already don’t belong in the old boy’s club. Can you imagine if I said no to grabbing a beer after work or sharing a bottle of wine over a steak dinner? I would never build any relationships and have a career...or for that matter a life.”
Anika suddenly felt the need to explain herself further; she was used to disapproval for her drinking habits from her ultra conversative parents but she couldn’t bear the thought of it from this stranger. How dare she act like Anika didn’t know what she was doing.
“Look, figuring out how to belong is what I do. I have done it all my life. We were nomadic growing up; moving every couple of years for my dad’s job. So I was always picking up and starting over - new schools, new cities, new friends. And I learned pretty quickly that the way to stop just being the new kid, and to start fitting in, is to pick a few things and adopt them so others feel like you are willing to learn their ways. It just makes things easier, more comfortable for them. I’m used to changing accents, picking up new hobbies, and yes as I got older, drinking was an important way to break the ice and build connections. To me, it’s something I can’t live without. Or, or...I will always be an outsider.” Anika felt the last few words stick in her esophagus refusing to come out and as they did, seemed to flip a switch that misted up her eyes. She hadn’t quite expected to make this confession. Maybe the heat in the office was working after all.
The counselor removed her glasses and placed them on her notebook that she had been scribbling things into intermittently.
“Thank you for sharing that, Anika. It sounds like you believe drinking alcohol is important for you to fit in - at work and socially. Many of the people who come into my office feel that way. But you have to ask yourself, at what cost? Look, you are clearly a bright young lady and doing well for yourself. I am not going to tell you anything you don’t know. But sometimes, we tell ourselves these stories that seem true because we’ve told them so many times and we don’t know what else could be true anymore. That’s where some external perspective can help. I understand that it’s easier to be part of the system than to fight it. But don’t you want to succeed on your terms, Anika?”
Anika found every word was suspended in the air between their two chairs as they came at her in slow motion. She suddenly felt a trickle down her back like a shiver. The hair on her arms stood upright like palm trees resisting the wind. Her throat seemed to squeeze in on the air coming in mimicking a toothpaste tube you squeeze to get the last bits out. She knew these symptoms; she felt them after her last breakup, the time she hadn’t gotten the summer internship she wanted, when a girl in school made fun of her hairy legs. These were the tips of the iceberg protruding to the surface masking the fragility under the water line. They came at times when the thing she told herself - I have my life together - felt like a hologram that disappeared on touch. She was sinking. She was splintering. She needed a lifeline.