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It was an odd way to celebrate my first year of sobriety, admittedly—sweaty, covered in dirt, excavating a nineteen-hundred-year-old city on the southern coast of Turkey. But I suppose I hadn’t really thought much about that several months earlier when, on a whim, I attended Michael’s lecture. He was a co-director of the excavation site. He showed slides of himself along with some colleagues surveying and then digging at Antiochia ad Cragum—that ancient city—talked about how he had come to the site, mentioned that students were welcome to participate in the dig.
I hadn’t thought about my first sobriety birthday when I applied for a grant and begged for money around town so that I could afford the trip, hadn’t thought about it consciously anyway. I was a financially precarious, emotionally destitute grad student scraping together an education and some sanity and trying to stay off the booze. And even though I was finally piecing my life together, I wanted desperately to get the hell out of Nebraska and away from the ruins I was trying to leave in my own past. Maybe I was trying to give myself something to look forward to as well, something other than interminable sobriety, that terrifying prospect.
When I reached my first sobriety birthday, I hadn’t told anyone on the dig that I had managed to piece together 365 days without a drink, 365 when there was a time I could only white-knuckle a week or two, 365 when there was a time I paced around my room, mind racing, punching walls, shaking, texting friends and family asking for help because I was afraid to leave my house to buy toilet paper, afraid I would go buy a bottle if I did.
I tried to sweat it out, burn it out as much as possible. I embraced anger, which usually comes when my mind turns on me, anger at myself for not being able to float above the detritus of my past—instead always welling it up—anger for not being able to let go and move on and become stronger, better.
I celebrated an inconsequential 365 days, a triumphant and monumental 365 days, quietly, by myself, on a Monday, digging in the dirt, scraping and brushing dry, age-packed earth from the foundation of what, nearly two thousand years before, would have been the front steps of a pagan temple. I celebrated quietly by myself later, too, after we got back to the dig house in Gazipaşa, the small city not far from the excavation where we were living. I celebrated alone when a bunch of us went to a bar that night, celebrated with a nice, cold, refreshing glass of Coke Light, the Turkish version of Diet Coke. I celebrated by writing in my journal.
I made it, though somewhere in the back of my mind, I didn’t think I could. It has been one year since I had a drink. One whole year. It was help from others, staying busy, and willpower. Sometimes it was hard going, but I did it. I think my life is better, and I know that it won’t continue to get better unless I stay sober. I haven’t told anyone here on the dig. It’s not something people like to hear. It makes them nervous. I think they know me well enough now that they would be OK with it overall, but even so, it’s always a conversation killer. Happy birthday to me.
Sobriety became difficult in Turkey, which shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it’s easy to be hopeful and then get blind-sided, especially early in recovery. It wasn’t that we frequented a couple of local bars in Gazipaşa, pretty much everyone else drinking either Tuborg, imported Danish beer, or Efes, a Turkish beer, and me always with Coke Light or Türk kahve orta, Turkish coffee with medium sugar. But the work, the digging, allowed for too much time to think. Even if I had managed to leave my own history behind somewhere in the middle of the U.S., it would catch up with me in the long moments of scraping and hacking with a small pick, brushing with a hand broom in a dusty trench. They could have been profound, meditative moments ideal for sweeping away the ego, polishing a brick into a mirror, as it were. I could have found something meaningful in the repetitive motion, something deep and symbolic in the act of digging to find a past, unearthing lives and deaths to understand our world. I could have found peace, but what I found was myself. Over and over again, I found fragments of stories from my personal history—suicide attempts, hospitalizations, a mother’s tears, fractured friendships, charred bridges, little bits of everyday death.
I tried to sweat it out, burn it out as much as possible. I embraced anger, which usually comes when my mind turns on me, anger at myself for not being able to float above the detritus of my past—instead always welling it up—anger for not being able to let go and move on and become stronger, better. I worked as hard as I could, chopped the roots of Mediterranean holly bushes out of the ground with as much fervor as I could manage, chopped until I drenched my shirt, until my breath was gone and my hands rang painfully with the vibration and impact, and I had to stop. And I chopped some more, tried to chop away every little stump still clinging in the earth, every remnant still rooted and alive. I wanted to chop and throw stones and wheelbarrow dirt until the voice in my head left and everything became painfully, gently simple, until my mind was gone and I just existed, until I was just present in that beautiful and desolate setting.
One Saturday night, a group of us went to a rooftop hookah bar, and after, picked up some wine and headed down to Gazipaşa beach for a night swim in the Mediterranean. We walked down to the shore, a long walk down a wide, straight promenade. About half way to the beach, there was a little refreshment stand on the side of the road. Not far after that, we had to walk around the massive leg of a Roman-era aqueduct that intruded on the otherwise decidedly modern setting—the street of meticulously laid brick with wide sidewalks, newer apartment complexes on either side, and out of nowhere came this ancient, concrete, water-bearing beast frozen as it attempted to cross the road.
There is something profoundly communal about sharing in the drinking of alcohol. It goes back thousands of years, has always been linked to ceremony both sacred and profane.
When we made it to the beach and got settled near the water, sitting on white plastic loungers that were always lined up in the sand, we uncorked the bottles of cheap wine, and began passing them around.
They passed the bottles around, I should say. I sat there with my 1.5 liters of Coke Light while they passed the wine, laughing and drinking. It wasn’t long before we dove into the dark, surprisingly warm water of the Mediterranean, sloshing around and joking and screaming with the pure freedom of it all, the sky open and the water inviting, permeated at all times by ever-deepening friendship. Soon, we got out, and my friends continued to pass the bottles.
There is something profoundly communal about sharing in the drinking of alcohol. It goes back thousands of years, has always been linked to ceremony both sacred and profane. I had for the most part become okay with being around others while they drank even if I was the only one not doing so, but I was not prepared for that time, that night. Not only was there a kind of physical communion, the passing of the vessel, the sharing of good will and laughter, but my abstinence was a denial of something larger, a part of this unique experience in which I was unable to partake.
It all came together into a silent, roiling storm. It was being in that moment—halfway across the planet, taking part in an excavation, with those wonderful people on that star-lit night, anointed in the warmth of the wine-dark sea, all of us wet and giggling—being in all of that, and not being able to fully participate, that took hold and wouldn’t let go.
And what happened, what always happens in a mind like mine, my former mind of a former self that had seemingly crept up out of the earth, was a cognitive jump, and kind of psychotic leap. In an imperceptible tick of time, something you could only squeeze a flash of lightning into, I went from thinking, I can’t drink wine, so what, to, I’m not fun anymore now that I’m sober.
This might seem trivial, even absurd. It is. But in the mind of an alcoholic, it can be a fatal slip.
This thing we have, we addicts, whatever it is—disease, defect, curse—it kills most of us. And I knew it, had counted on it as a matter of fact.
I didn’t drink that night, but it did put me in a psychological purgatory for a few days—marked by dark introspection, regret, despair—which my new friends helped me out of. And after coming out of it, I felt stronger. I continued to get closer to my friends from around the world. I continued to enjoy myself as much as possible, even when the end of the first month was near, even when many of us were so close to leaving—making way for another group of diggers to come in—even after I decided in the eleventh hour to borrow some money and stay for the second month of the dig season, even when I had said goodbye to my American and Scottish and Australian friends—friends with whom I had felt so alive for a brief moment, less than a blink in the historical record—and I had to welcome new diggers, I felt stronger and more alive. I even tried to welcome the tears of parting. I opened myself to my Turkish friends, who would also be there for the next month, even though they didn’t speak much English and I didn’t speak much Turkish. I felt strong and alive with more feeling than I had allowed myself to experience in many years—feeling that, previously, I would have tried to drink away; it would have been too much.
And as it turned out, it was. On the first Friday of the second month, I was at the hookah bar with my Turkish friends, Levent, Sadık, and Sedat. Sedat, fortunately for me, speaks English very well, with a charming accent. It was warm as usual, the heat and humidity bear-hugging the world late into the summer night. And as usual, the small, open-air, rooftop bar was steadily busy, but not packed, a few groups sitting around the small, flimsy wooden tables pushed out to the ornate, cast-iron railings in an attempt to create space and catch whiffs of rare breezes. Not surprisingly, I was sweating while my Turkish friends seemed content and comfortable. We were all still sullen at the absence of our friends from the first month of the dig. The server came to our table, a young, short, athletic man with dark, kind eyes who was there every night that we were. My friends ordered Efes, a light, thin pilsner perfect for cutting the moisture hanging heavy in the air, and I ordered one, too: “Bir Efes, lütfen,” I said to the server, now practiced enough to at least politely, if clumsily, order a drink.
Levent, Sadık, and Sedat were wide-eyed, smiling with surprise. “You are drinking with us!” Sedat said.
“Yes,” I replied with a smile.
The beer was refreshing, as I knew it would be—cold and bubbly and thin—and if nothing else, it gave us something to talk about, something to take our minds off the friends we had said goodbye to several days prior.
“I used to drink eighteen beers at a time,” I told Sedat eventually, his eyes going wide again. “Sometimes twenty-four,” I added.
“That’s a lot,” he replied, then told Levent and Sadık in Turkish. Their eyes widened, too.
“I’m not a two-drink kind of guy,” I added. “That’s why I don’t drink anymore.”
But of course, I was drinking again. And I was in danger. This thing we have, we addicts, whatever it is—disease, defect, curse—it kills most of us. And I knew it, had counted on it as a matter of fact. Booze had been many things to me over the ten-or-so years I had imbibed it heavily. It was a friend in lonely nights when I was the only one who hadn’t left the party or passed out. It was a social crutch, an anti-depressant, a cudgel good for beating myself. It was armor. It was a haven. And it was that painfully slow poison that I knew I deserved, that I inflicted on myself because I was a thing that, on closer inspection, would have been tossed out with the refuse, but that had somehow made it to adulthood all the same.
I had apparently found shards of a previous self, a younger, happier person perhaps, and I didn’t want him to give in to the voice, the specter saying in so many low and hushed words, “Just one more.”
I was convinced that I had been screwed from the start; the mold had been cracked and over-used and it didn’t matter what had happened, what life I had lived. I was destined for shit. And when you know deep down to the bedrock that you were born with active fault lines in your soul or psyche or brain or whatever it is you believe makes us human, you don’t just feel inadequate and ashamed for existing; you want to do to yourself what you know everyone else would do if they didn’t feel so damned sorry for you: You want to punish yourself. You want to rip open your veins or bludgeon your liver into a fatty paste simply because you exist and you know as well as everyone else that you shouldn’t.
Not all of this went through my mind as I drank that cold Efes on that hot Turkish night. It didn’t have to. That kind of wrenching, visceral self-loathing doesn’t have to be thought consciously. Over time, it can reduce down to bodily short hand—a clamped jaw, muscle twitches, a spontaneously clenched fist.
But I had managed over a year of sobriety by the time I had taken that drink, and I still had something to show for it. Something had changed. I started drinking, and I kept drinking, but I didn’t turn into what I was afraid of, didn’t become the me that I had left behind. Too much had happened, and too much was happening. I had come too far to go back, and yet, there was an inherent contradiction in what might have been called my transformation. In my year of sobriety and all the piecemeal blocks of dry time leading up to it, I had learned too much about myself, often painfully, and I had gotten stronger, used to living without chemical padding. The contradiction lay in the fact that, as I had progressed, I had also gone back further than I thought, further back in time, and uncovered pieces of a previous me that had existed before I found things to be so bad that I needed to hide behind blurry bottle glass, a previous me that people liked, even without the booze.
It still wasn’t okay for me to drink. I hadn’t been cured of whatever it is in me that determines my relationship to mind-altering substances. There is no cure. The disease or defect or curse is simply a part of who I am.
I got drunk, starting with that familiar flush in the face, and then the pleasant relief of weight—my body growing lighter—and respite from the Mediterranean heat. I got drunk sooner than I thought I would, in fact, with only six beers, what used to be my warm-up routine before the heavy lifting. I was instantly reminded of why I shouldn’t drink, draining glasses faster than my friends, faster than the server made his rounds. I could have had ten to twelve Efeses at that speed, but I decided to let the server pace me. Sadık, Sedat, and Levent were a little surprised at both the speed and volume of my consumption, all the while my limbs unhinging, my eyes loosening. But I stopped at six, and we left for the night.
I would drink again two more times within the next three days, always with my Turkish friends, though cutting back to three and then two beers. Then I stopped altogether, again. Even though it wasn’t what I would call a bad relapse—certainly not as damaging as so many I’d had before—it wasn’t worth the risk. An alcoholic can always look at a rare instance of controlled consumption and use it to justify continued use.
I had apparently found shards of a previous self, a younger, happier person perhaps, and I didn’t want him to give in to the voice, the specter saying in so many low and hushed words, “Just one more.” I knew that if I kept drinking, I would not be the person whom my new friends had fallen in love with, and blurred by the alcohol fall that used to pour over my eyes most days, I would not have seen them as clearly, either. I wouldn’t have become so enamored with my fellow diggers, wouldn’t have allowed myself the feeling.
I carefully rolled it in my gloved hand, quietly proud of this thing that I had found—so insignificant within the context of our dig. This thing that, broken and lost though it was, stood for me as something decidedly, surprisingly complete.
One month to the day after I celebrated my first year of sobriety, the day after that last drink in Turkey, I scribbled a journal entry of one line.
7/23/13 is last one, last time.
A couple weeks later, one week before I left Turkey, we were all on the site working. I was by myself scraping in a trench. It was between the Roman-style bath complex and the agora temple, a liminal space.
I was scraping slowly when I hit something, an orange potsherd, I thought, except it was bigger than any I had found before. It wouldn’t move.
I proceeded slowly, keeping it to myself for a moment. I grabbed my hand broom, brushed, cleared away dirt and pebbles. After finding so many bits of refuse, shattered vessels, and chipped masonry, it would have been nice for a change to find something relatively intact, almost whole.
The base of a bowl, perhaps. It was now a cupped protrusion, spun with regularity on a pottery wheel—I guessed by the circular grooves—but broken nonetheless and tanned with dirt, hints of orange along the fractured edges in the hot morning sun. I attempted to move it, foolishly. I should have been more careful. It wiggled, seemed like it went deeper, so I continued to dig slowly—very slowly—smearing dust into mud on my face and arms. That week was so hot that I brought two shirts every day, every thirty minutes changing, wringing the sweat out of one and draping it on an old water tank to bake dry and salt-stiff, then putting on the other.
And the piece, whatever it was, went deeper. After a few minutes, I had what looked like a petrified ice cream cone with a blunt bottom: a toe. It was the toe of an amphora. They were storage containers. This one, with its slightly conic stub on the bottom, would have been at least two feet tall by my guess, though I’m no expert in ancient pottery. In a ship’s hull, amphorae could be stood up and then leaned against each other, were designed to do so—tall, narrow pots with arms reaching from their shoulders down to their hips. This amphora could have transported olive oil, grain, wine.
I had nearly uncovered all of it when it started to lean. I gently wiggled it loose, virtually no resistance, like a tooth ready to go. I carefully rolled it in my gloved hand, quietly proud of this thing that I had found—so insignificant within the context of our dig. This thing that, broken and lost though it was, stood for me as something decidedly, surprisingly complete.
I took my meager offering to Michael, who confirmed the find. He had been sitting on a white plastic lawn chair in the shade of a portable canopy between two trenches looking at papers he had pulled from his bag, perhaps trying to assemble the trenches and their contents into an ancient city like he’d done, I am sure, hundreds of times.
“Is that all of it?” he asked me.
“Yeah,” I replied. “I haven’t found any more.”
He looked off to somewhere, as he often did, always to some far-off there. Archaeologists are men and women stretched thin, not only by countless hours of meticulous work, poring over documents and pictures and things left behind, but by centuries.
“Well, all right then,” he said. “Bag it and label it.”
“All right,” I said, and walked back to my trench. I carefully put the amphora toe in a quart-sized bag, used a black marker to write the date and trench number on the transparent plastic. I placed it next to my backpack in the shade of a bush.
It was an unremarkable find.
Zach Jacobs is originally from Bennington, Nebraska, but now lives in Houston, Texas. He earned his MA in English from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. His writing has appeared in Sport Literate and The Examined Life Journal. He is currently working on a collection of personal essays and an archaeological memoir.