Featured, Sober Berlin, Story

Sober Berlin: On tarot and the stories we tell ourselves

Text by Hannah Graves
Illustrations by Peter Wood

I moved to Berlin in September 2012 with a single suitcase of inappropriate clothing and 300 euros to my name. JJ, an owner of the tattoo studio AKA Berlin, had taken a chance on a troubled 27-year-old desperate to get out of the South Coast of England and offered me a job as a piercer. I gave up my apartment, sold my belongings, and never looked back.

I had been in and out of the doctors’ office since the start of my 20s. I suffered from terrible depression and anxiety and was prone to panic attacks. I’d been told I would need to remain medicated once I moved to Berlin, but threw all my tablets in the bin at Gatwick, convinced that a total change of environment would surely be the solution.

I landed with all the hallmark enthusiasm of someone who can be prone to bouts of mania. I threw myself into my new job and friendship group. I loved Berlin for her dive bars and crazy parties—I felt I’d found my place and my people and that I could finally be myself. I wasn’t aware at the time that such a massive part of the appeal was that I was creating a life that entirely facilitated my drinking problem and supported my descent into drug use. It was typical for me to be drunk or hungover at work, and as that became a problem, drugs became the solution. I was the one always hammered way too soon as my British binge drinking habits clashed with the long hours of the Berlin party scene. I used to joke that people took speed in Berlin like Brits drank Redbull—it was therefore entirely reasonable to take speed during the day because I would have still been too drunk to function otherwise. I graduated to cocaine and soon found my ideal concoction of people, places, and things to support my habit.

I moved to Berlin because I was trying to get away. I hadn’t realized that I was just trying to get away from myself.

Still, Berlin is not to blame for my drinking and my drug use. As an addict, I would have found ways to self-medicate, or I wouldn’t, and if I hadn’t, I might not still be here today. I don’t think Berlin destroys people, but it can play an integral role for people who are intent on killing themselves. Nihilism and hedonism often go hand in hand. Suffering and creativity are partnered into a package deal, and there is a common fallacy that the two cannot be separated which Berlin plays into very well. Berlin may take a particularly lenient approach to drug use, but it’s evident from looking at the different ways in which countries attempt to tackle addiction that stopping people from getting drugs and alcohol isn’t possible. Attempts to harshly punish them for doing so further may only exacerbate the problem.

Four years after my triumphant arrival in Berlin, I found myself hungover, coming down, and generally sick of life when a sober friend asked me if I wanted to go to an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting. I asked him how he knew it was time to get sober. “Honey,” he replied, “when you’re done, you’re done.”

And yet, I wasn’t truly done. Real recovery is for people who want it, not just those who need it. Although I needed it, I didn’t yet fully want it. I simply wasn’t ready to face my feelings.

“I moved to Berlin because I was trying to get away. I hadn’t realized that I was just trying to get away from myself.”

 

By November 2016, I was very unwell. I had the shakes, would throw up in the mornings, and suffer under complete mental anguish all day. I took myself back to AA and made another resolute commitment to clean up my act.

And still, I couldn’t do it. I was desperate to change but didn’t want to do the work.

Luckily, I got the gift of desperation for Christmas that year. I was suicidal, ruined my family’s holiday, flew back to Berlin and went on a 48-hour bender driven by self-pity and destruction.

My relationship at the time had broken down, my family was desperate with worry, and I felt isolated and alone. I was consumed with anxiety and just curled up on the end of my couch and cried. I knew the party was over and it was time to get sober. I just didn’t know how to do that. I made it four whole days with no drugs or alcohol before I went out of my mind. I couldn’t exist in my natural state anymore and was compelled to drink or use because just being alive otherwise was too painful.

It was then that I was finally done. I returned to AA on January 6, 2017, and have been sober, completely clean of any drugs or alcohol, for two years. To this day, I don’t actually remember that first meeting. I don’t remember arriving there or saying anything. Apparently, I put up my hand and asked for help. That was day one.

There was one moment that I will always recall as a pivotal point in my journey. It was just a few days after I had committed to my third go-round with sobriety. I was in a dark place, not only because my newfound sobriety was still nascent, but also because I had just learned that an old friend had committed suicide. I’d spoken to her just days before about both of us getting sober, and we agreed it was time.

While I went to AA, she took her own life.

I was angry, I was confused, and the notion of “live fast and die young” began to sound as stupid as it actually was for the first time. Deep in thought and overcome by sorrow after her death, I found myself walking along the Landwehr Canal one cold morning just after New Years. My thoughts were broken by the sight of a Christmas tree tied to a fence. Whoever placed it there had attached a telephone, with a sticker that read: “Call the universe.” The tree itself was covered in luggage tags, with labels offering advice like “Go to the gym” or “Call your Mom.” I looked at the phone then back at the tree, picked a tag and turned it over. It read: “Get sober.”

My dog was snuffling about in the dirt, and I turned my attention away from the mystic Christmas tree to what he had found: a battered, old tarot card. I knew very little about tarot, but took the card home with me and looked it up. The card, I soon learned, was The Hierophant. The Hierophant represents belief systems, and groups. All morning I’d been preoccupied with what belonging to groups meant to me, the subculture I’d been a part of for so long, as well as AA as a group to which I had only recently started to belong. This card was a gentle reminder that sometimes we need to belong to a group, but also that at all times, we must trust ourselves. Reading the meaning of the card felt like putting an ice pack on a burn. It bought me relief.

“I looked at the phone then back at the tree, picked a tag and turned it over. It read: ‘Get sober.'”

 

Just weeks later I wasn’t feeling well, my anxiety had driven me out of my house and onto the street. I was walking around consumed by my own fear, unsure that I could stay sober. I encountered another tarot card as a paste-up, on a wall in my neighbourhood.  It was the Page of Swords. I quickly googled the card and found: “The Page of Swords suggests that an opportunity for growth may come your way in the guise of a problem or dilemma—if you accept and prevail, you will become stronger and more resilient.” Reading the meaning of the card was like breaking the surface of water to gasp for air.

My interest in tarot only grew after that point. Although some say you should never buy your own tarot cards and that they should be gifted to you, I bought my own first deck of cards. I saw buying them for myself as an act of self-care at a time when I really needed it.

I’ve been reading cards for two years now. I never deliberately dedicated time to it, but it has been a constant on my road to recovery. No one is more surprised by my relationship with tarot today than me. Before, I was a nihilist and hated anything that even had a vague connotation of hippy spiritual shit. Today, I wouldn’t be anywhere without my tarot cards and my practice. I’ve heard it said that religion is for people who are afraid of hell, and spirituality is for those who have been there.

Reading tarot is the first thing I’ve committed to and practiced. I didn’t do that consciously. Usually, I want to be brilliant at something immediately—I lack patience and do not enjoy practicing something. Reading tarot cards has helped ground me, guide my actions, and serve as a tool for reflective thinking. Even more so, they help me show up for others and connect with people in a genuine way, not to mention that they foster creativity and hope. Tarot showed up in my life and remained there, teaching me so much about the nature of time and the importance of work, focus, and belated reward. My relationship with tarot, in this way, fully reflects my recovery.

Getting sober is probably the most significant shift I have experienced thus far my life because it has changed everything. It changed where I spent my time and with whom, and has radically altered my internal life, my thought processes.

“I’ve heard it said that religion is for people who are afraid of hell, and spirituality is for those who have been there.”

 

I’ve learned that Berlin isn’t just full of dive bars and clubs. It’s also full of art and culture. It’s full of just as many people who have no interest in drugs and alcohol as those who do. When we live in a bubble of our own creation it is easy to make assumptions about those who exist outside of it. Berlin can be whatever you want her to be. As I’ve changed, she’s changed. I see more poverty and desperation here now than I used to. I woke up, so I realise that Berlin is a major city that has its own problems. Still, I feel totally at home here. No part of me felt I had to run away from Berlin to get healthy.

Sobriety is different to simply giving up alcohol and drugs. It involves coming face to face with who you really are and then doing the work to close the gap between where you find yourself and where you want to be. I still want to be in Berlin, I just didn’t want to feel like I was wasting my life like I was before, doing the same things over and over again.

When I wake up in the morning, I no longer feel panic. I don’t feel as if I am trying to outrun some dark, malevolent force. I am able to spend time alone in contentment. I experience serenity. I no longer have bruises and an empty bank account. It’s been a really long time since I shouted at anyone. I haven’t locked myself out of my house or smashed my phone in a really long time. I’m not afraid anymore. I’m not afraid to die, and I’m not afraid to live.

Peter drew these illustrations from photos taking during a tarot reading session at Hannah’s house one Sunday evening. Mixed media on paper (ink, pencil, pen, felt tip).