The Sober Truth

The Sober Truth

Loss & recovery, calamity & clarity

By Christina Ryan-Stoltz
Current Contributor

Five years ago, I was with my family at a cousin’s wedding, and I did not know it then, but I had my last drink. It was a Moscow mule or a dark and stormy; I can not remember which of those two. I had several that night, but not enough to catch much of any kind of a buzz. In fact, I distinctly recall feeling like: “Why can’t I catch a buzz?” Surely the venue had watered down their booze. Surely the bartender was not using enough of it. 

As I waited in line again, I convinced myself that double-fisting them was practical, because they were not strong. I felt certain of this, until I walked to our table and my dad very discreetly, very subtly looked at both glasses and then up at my face and then away. Imperceptible and possibly even only in my own head, but I felt—silly.  I just felt so silly. And I do not mean in a fun way. I mean in the way that I feel when I try to wear clothes that are poofy or too trendy. Silly like a sad clown. Silly like a dumb ass. 

I was using alcohol to mask my agony of grief, despair, and sense of responsibility for my son Isaac’s death, which had occurred two years prior to this wedding. 

And I was not fooling anyone; I was not masking anything. I was a walking train wreck. I was a dam about to burst—or bursting—all the time.

I had spent two years trying to convince myself that alcohol was helping me; that these feelings were too big and that I deserved to reduce them any way that I could. (It never actually worked, by the way; it always made me sadder). I frequently discussed my drinking (and smoking) with my therapist, who would gently try to help me to see the truth, but I was stubborn (shocking) and attached to my crutch. I wasn’t hurtin’ nobody…

But then, that look from my daddy—who never judges me, who never shows anything but kindness and grace, who probably does not even know this moment occurred. 

Feeling silly led me, quickly, to feeling suicidal. There, at the wedding. 

Christina Ryan-Stoltz Isaac Julian Legacy Foundation suicide sobriety the sober truth the betsie current newspaper Benzie County Northern Michigan
Isaac Julian and his mama, Christina Ryan-Stoltz. Photo courtesy of the McKinnon-Ryan-Stoltz family.

This was not a new feeling. I suffered with relentless suicidal ideation in 2011, to the point of five days in the hospital, and then most of the two years I spent drinking after Isaac stopped living. 

I had just been living quietly with my dark thoughts, not making any specific plans, but entertaining all ideas. Drinking alone, so I could think and cry and beat myself up with empathy for Isaac’s painful choice—I would try to imagine it, I would sit alone in my car, my backyard, on the beach, and just stare into this void and try to conjure his final moments. I believed this was how I should spend my time—as his mama, that I should. That I was somehow solving a riddle or paying penance. 

Honestly, it is painful to write and hard to understand from where I sit today. The point is that I was torturing myself. 

So, at my cousin’s wedding—filled instantly with shame I wanted to die from—I went to bed in the hotel later that night, with my husband beside me, and my sister and her love in the other bed. And I cried myself to sleep while making a solid plan.

I woke in the morning with a slight headache and nausea, but not as bad as most mornings. It took me a little time to remember where my mind had gone the night before. I wept, remembering my shame, my aforementioned silliness, and my deep sadness. I wept for myself having to live with this pain that would make me feel so desperate that I would want to die, all the while smiling and ‘convincing’ everyone who loved me that I was fine. But I also wept because I knew, somehow I knew, that today was the day I had to decide—my therapist had been telling me for two years that I needed to decide whether to live or survive. To come back from this loss or to be taken down by it. She said it at almost every session, and I ignored her. Did not believe her. Was not interested in making a decision like that. 

Until the morning of Sunday, September 11, 2016. Random, unintended bogarting of a day which most reflect on as somber; I did not make some big decision or any kind of announcement. I just did not have a mimosa or a Bloody Mary with breakfast. I just had a little voice inside that I had ignored—forever—that suddenly seemed like the only voice inside that I could trust. 

I had to get real quiet to listen to her. And day after day, for a long, long time, I just kept saying “Not today”—both a “no” to drinking and to dying.
No big commitment; just today. And again, but not until the next today. And the next. And the next. And the next after that. Trying it on for size. Walking through the world with new eyes. Far less armored. Vulnerable. More alone.


The clarity started to come in. As did the truth. As did the emotions. As did the space. As did the possibilities. As did the sleep. As did the appetite. As did the good memories. As did the love. As did the light. As did the hope.

In the five years since, I have never had a good enough reason to drink or die. And so, I keep choosing to live. To thrive. To do more than just survive—though some days, that is all it feels like I am capable of. 

The grief is still heavy. But now, so is the joy.

Read more at online.

Featured Photo Caption: Morning sunrise walks are now a staple, replacing headache and nausea. Photo by Christina Ryan-Stoltz.

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